Monday, March 23, 2009

The Removal Van has Left the Building

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

'Watchmen' Re-visited

Fig.1: The Point of the Film

Imagine a world in which a human being developed god-like powers and put them to military use. War might soon be a thing of the past - although a lot of people might die to prove it. Imagine this world also tolerating people who dress up in costumes to avenge crime, before, as worlds often do, turning its back on these vigilantes in search of another scapegoat on whom to project its hunger for violence. Imagine a world in which some people actually thought about the consequences of these things.

This is the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most serious and elegant graphic novels ever written. This is not the world of ‘Watchmen’, one of the most talked about movies ever made.

In the moral universe of the novel, co-created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as a meditation on power at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon is, in 1985, the apparently permanent President, celebrity and industry have struck a devil’s bargain with politics and militarism, the streets run dark red with the aftermath of the shattering of community bonds, and vigilantism is an inevitable outworking of society’s sickness. The costumed avengers, as they call themselves, have been banned from their activities, Nixon having made masks illegal (which gives you a sense of the knowing ironic tone of the book); most of them have retired, happy to be left alone, but quietly grieving a previous life so exciting that it can’t be compared to what they have now.

One of them is the god-like being – Dr Manhattan – who is introduced to the world with the headline: ‘The Superman exists and he is American’ (Later a colleague clarifies the intent, revising his statement thus: ‘God exists, and he is American’. He offers words of comfort to anyone who feels terrified by such a sentiment, saying that their fear is merely an indication that they haven’t lost their minds entirely.) This telegraphs the heart of the book: when power is treated as right rather than privilege, when violence is assumed to be the path to peace, when people define themselves primarily as nations rather than a global community, and when sexuality is wrapped up with force, you get perpetual war.

The book is utterly fascinating, bleak, and serious.

The film gets the second part right. It’s bleak. Bleak as hell. And I mean that as literally as I can. In the moral universe of the ‘Watchmen’ movie all reflective thought is banished in favor of an astonishing visual setup – one of the most stunning-look films ever made turns out to be also one of the biggest missed opportunities. Is violence inherent to human nature? Do people always default to selfishness? Does fame depend on the exploitation of others? In what sense does the love of money lead inexorably to the destruction of community? These, and many other questions are left quietly alone; allowing the movie to indulge its (admittedly talented) director’s taste for showcase thuggery. You’ve never seen blood flow like you do in this movie.

In spite of some good casting alongside the quite brilliant photography and art direction, the film is a far cry from the somber philosophical text on which it’s based. Moore has said that, among other things, he wanted to explore what ‘a Batman-type, driven, vengeance-fuelled psychopath would be like in the real world’. Clearly the authorial intent was to ask serious questions about how we allow violence to be done in our name. Yet the film presents this ‘Batman-type’ character in such a manner that at the first screening I saw, when he carried out an horrific act of violence, the audience applauded. I don’t think the film-makers were being ironic. When the story in the novel climaxes with a ‘kill a few to save a lot’ ending, we may be supposed to wonder if there might just be a better way to bring peace than to commit genocide. But the film doesn’t have enough heart to make us care about the future of humanity. It’s a color photocopy of the source novel – a clone without a soul. ‘Watchmen’ (the novel) aims to tell the truth about violence; but the film wants us to be excited by it. In a world with vengeance-fuelled superheroes running the show, people would be afraid to be afraid; but ‘Watchmen’ the movie made me feel afraid for how we often tell the story of human beings to each other these days. The book mourns how we so often see violence as a positive path. But the film celebrates it.

Fig.2: The Point of the Book

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Response to New Violence in Northern Ireland

UPDATE 10.45pm: It's been reported that a police officer has been shot dead in Craigavon. Whether this is connected to the murders in Antrim is unclear. But I feel even more strongly about everything I wrote earlier today. There has never been any justification for the use of violence to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland; and for at least the last decade there has been no intellectual logic to even pretending such justification.

On Saturday night, two young soldiers preparing to go to Afghanistan were murdered in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Four other people, including two men delivering pizzas, were injured. The people who carried out the attack — members of a group that split from the mainstream IRA in the late 1990s — claim they were doing so to bring about a free Ireland. They make the callous claim that the pizza delivery guys were collaborating with what they consider to be the British occupation forces in Ireland.

It’s hard to know what to say in response, but let’s begin with a reminder of the political context.

In short, from 1997 onwards, after 30 years of civil conflict in which our society saw illegal paramilitary groups and British security forces engage, nearly 4,000 people were killed, 43,000 physically injured: we negotiated with each other.

The vast majority of Irish people, North and South, voted in a free referendum over 10 years ago to endorse the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The government of the Irish Republic supports this agreement. So does the government of the U.K. And the European Parliament. And the U.S. government. And the United Nations.

The agreement required serious and substantial compromise from each community; it was hard-won, and some of the costs of the agreement are still difficult to bear. It has brought about the release of all prisoners held for politically-motivated offenses; the reform of the police to the extent where a (U.S.) oversight commissioner pronounced it one of the most progressive police services in the world; the enactment of some of the most radical and humane equality and human rights legislation anywhere on the planet; and a power-sharing executive government whose very modus operandi includes neither Protestant/unionist nor Catholic/nationalist representatives from vetoing the other side.

Every community in Northern Ireland has had to compromise, and every community has gained. Our past is a broken one; we’re trying to fix it. The people who murdered the soldiers and seriously injured PIZZA DELIVERY GUYS on Saturday are motivated by a mixture of historical falsehood and the human tendency to blood lust, along with whatever personal stories may have forced them into thinking that violence is an acceptable path. They are wrong. And anyone who tries to justify this kind of act betrays the best of what it means to be Irish. I am left with feelings of deep offense alongside the sorrow I feel for the loved ones of those who have died, been wounded, and the rest of the people of my home, Northern Ireland, whose traumatic memories of the past have now been re-stirred. Including my own.

But angry rhetoric is not what we need right now. We need to assert something vital: that being northern Irish, or Irish, or simply human is never to be just ‘one thing.’ I am from Belfast, but you cannot easily put me in a political or religious box. Within the past two generations I have family ties to people from just about the widest demographic background possible in 20th century Ireland. Protestant. Catholic. Irish. British. Pro-state. Anti-state. Political. Apolitical. Bereaved. Suffering. Peacemaking. To those who would return to violence as a method for political action, I say: If you want to remove the British, you’d have to kill half of me. On the other hand, if you want to hurt the Irish, take the other half. If we’re honest, we may all find that our backgrounds grant us more in common with our supposed enemies than we usually think.

I am close to people who lived to see their loved ones murdered. The killing was done by Irish ‘rebels’ who believed they were trying to start a revolution, and by pro-British ‘loyalists’ telling themselves that they were trying to stop one. That’s over now. Or it’s supposed to be.

The people who killed two young men and shot four others on Saturday night may think they’re trying to get the revolution started again. They’re wrong. The revolution has already come. It came when our political representatives decided to forgo the right to revenge and negotiate a settlement in which nobody wins (except everybody) and nobody loses (except everybody). Because of this revolution, we can each have a stake in the future of our society; and the past can be addressed through nonviolent, non-punitive means. It has cost us a great deal. There can be no one who is totally satisfied with every aspect of the Northern Ireland peace process – I’ll gladly tell you what bothers me about it if you ask. But complaint, and much less revenge, won’t serve us – even as we are outraged at the weekend’s horror. For the larger truth is that while it has always been true that there has never been any justification for the use of violence for political ends in Ireland and Northern Ireland, today, and for at least the last decade, there can be no way of even pretending such a justification exists.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Hollywood Meets Tehran

When there’s an international crisis, I know I’d prefer to have Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard on my side – strong women with a reflective presence. I'm not kidding. So it’s good to see that they’ve gone one step further than just talking about peace or acting in movies that make people feel good about themselves. Right now, they’re actually in Iran, along with some other senior members of the Academy, as part of what might be considered one of the highest level cultural exchange programs since Ronnie and Mikhail went for a walk by the Ellioaa River.

You may think I’m joking, but I’m not: we’ve been so used over the past few years to being told that the way to be good citizens is to be suspicious of the rest of the world and go to the mall that the notion of an artistic exchange between Hollywood and Tehran seems nothing short of, well, nothing short of the kind of thing people who want to nurture the bonds that are formed through aesthetic experience would do.

Hopefully – and presumably – the Academy people realise that the exchange should work both ways - Iranian film-makers have produced some of the most indelible and humane cinematic images of the past twenty years – Makhmalbaf’s ‘Blackboards’ nurturing the parallels between vagabond teachers and the birds that swoop above them on their treacherous journey through the mountains (see the astonishing image above for a taster of why there's almost nothing more evocative you could choose to watch tonight), another teacher in ‘09/11/01’ drawing a circle in the dust to represent the clock that allows her pupils to take a minute’s silence in honour of the dead in the Twin Towers, the various attempts by the protagonist to make and receive cell phone calls in a place where they don’t belong in Kiarostami’s ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’.

Predictably, the nation’s cultural captains have used the visit as an opportunity to denounce what they see as the decadence of US movies – I suppose I can understand people taking offence at the portrayal of Iranian forebears as barbaric in ‘300’ – though I was offended by that film’s vision of humanity itself as nothing more than a warrior species, whose bloodlust is not just to be celebrated, but seen as the better part of strength. But those images did not begin (nor will they end) with '300' (despite the fact that the myth of redemptive violence may have first been written down in that part of the world - have a look at The Epic of Gilgamesh).

And, come on, guys, if you’re going to be offended by the ‘Ayatollah’ character in ‘The Wrestler’ first spare a thought for spandex wearers, peroxide tinters, and stapler afficianados everywhere: the film is riffing on what got US wrestling fans riled in the 80s: are you seriously suggesting that having a guy dress up as an Iranian religious figure who gets his flag broken in a toy fight is less disturbing than burning an effigy of a US President? Could we not just agree that we’re all in this satire game together; and sometimes it goes too far?

But this is all bluster when compared to what I’d most like to see come out of the LA tourists’ visit to Iran: just as there is more to US cinema than cutting and burning, there's more to Iranian culture than the images evoked by President Ahmadenijad's public pronouncements. There’s a profound humanity to cinematic work that has emerged from Iran – whatever else happens as a result of Hollywood plus Tehran, hopefully some more of it will be seen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Radio discussion on theology and homosexuality

Interesting story on BBC Radio's Sunday Sequence this week - two guys talking about being gay, 'ex-gay', 'ex-ex-gay' and generally challenging how the Christian churches have treated them. The discussion will be available to listen to on-line til this Sunday.

Jeremy Marks, a man I've met and who is kind and gracious used to run a ministry called 'Courage', that believed it could offer gay Christians the opportunity to change their sexual orientation. Over time, he came to believe that this paradigm was unbiblical, bigoted, and contributed to the reasons why the rate of suicide attempts among young gay men is significantly higher than among men who aren't gay. In 2001 he made a public apology, and now offers 'Courage' as a space for 'gay and lesbian Christians who are seeking a safe place of friendship in which to reconcile their faith and sexuality and grow towards Christian maturity'. It's a remarkable shift - and Jeremy Marks is a remarkable man.

Michael Davidson, another man I've met, and who is also kind and gracious, has just established a ministry in Belfast called 'CORE' that appears to run on the same terms that Courage used to - offering space for gay and lesbian Christians who consider their same-sex attraction 'unwanted'.

Jeremy and Michael discussed their differing perspectives on the BBC; and what was extraordinary was how generous they were with each other. I disagree with Michael's theological perspective on sexuality, and it needs to be said that 're-orientation therapy' has been subject to sustained criticism from psychologists and others; but his genuine desire to reduce the volume of this too often fractious debate, and to not condemn people who disagree with him is moving and offers a contrast to the way these questions are often handled.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rewarding the faithful.

I've said before that the main value of awards ceremonies is that they allow for the possibility that some good films will get a new audience; and everybody likes prizes. The decadence and indulgence that seems to accompany the show - who cares who designed your dress? why are you dating so-and-so? is it anyone's business - I can do without; but it's hard to care about the movies without caring about the movie industry.

So, for anyone in the UK who's up late, anyone in the US who wants another commentary on the show on top of what they'll get on ABC, or in any other time zone with nothing better to do, Jett Loe and I will be live blogging the OSCARs over at

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What We Owe Jade Goody

Two years ago, when the UK reality TV star Jade Goody was being scapegoated for all British racism, historic and contemporary, I wrote the following:

“I wonder if our society will ever be ready to treat public figures as human beings. A 25 year old woman with a difficult family background, whose public persona, lest we forget, was carefully nurtured by the huge corporation responsible for ‘Big Brother’, made reference to the ethnicity of someone she was mocking on television, possibly because she is not mature enough to hide what others in the public eye might. She became therefore the target of violent threats, and eventually physically collapsed under the stress of being made to pay for the un-acknowledged guilt of a nation. There has been little or no serious discussion of the meaning of racism in our culture, nor what we might together do to address our own bigotry. One has to wonder if the hugely disproportionate reaction does not reveal more about repressed post-colonial self-loathing on the part of the British people, perhaps especially that held by its tabloid editors. If you have not have heard of her medical distress, it may be worth asking why some sections of the media were happy to report her public mistakes, but not her personal tragedy. We seem caught in a cultural paradox, where certain kinds of public vulnerability are not only welcome, but seen as a path to credibility; while other forms of honesty appear to prove Seamus Heaney’s adage that ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’”

Now, with the announcement of her terminal cancer, there seems to be nothing left to report but her tragedy. There’s a sense, as the news of Jade’s sorrow is absorbed by the public (and the media mavens who made her first a figure of fun, then hatred), of a quiet guilt descending. The sort that a bully might feel after seeing the impact of their actions, realising the fact that no matter what they might have previously thought, the power dynamics in which they were involved have produced immutable proof of something ancient but almost always true: that two wrongs don’t make a right.

I wonder if it’s too much to ask that we might see this woman, Jade Goody, as something more than a figure of fun, or of accusation, or even of pity. Could we instead ask ourselves if the dehumanization of our culture might finally have exhausted any right to sustain itself? That instead of trivializing her further, we might let our sister Jade Goody have some peace to be with her loved ones; and instead of using her illness as a reason to feel some kind of emotional catharsis, we might consider ourselves privileged to have the chance, the space, and the health to reflect on how we ourselves (and I mean to start with me) will respond to the questions of humiliation, finger-pointing, prejudice (not only the racism she was accused of, but the bigotry she faced because it was convenient to label her ‘stupid’), and the human brokenness that her sad story evokes?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Millard Fuller: The Practice of Prophecy

Millard Fuller, co-founder with his wife Linda, of Habitat for Humanity, the housing charity that has built hundreds of thousands of homes for people who otherwise might not have the means to buy, has died at 74 years old.

Obituaries and tributes elsewhere will detail his life and work; I had the privilege of meeting him and Linda once, and their graceful humility made the kind of impact that leaves you thinking simply, 'I wish I could be like that'.

All I would wish to add to what will surely be detailed and worthy tributes is the following: Millard Fuller, through Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center did something that most of us would like to, but miss: he took an ancient teaching that everyone ostensibly agrees with - love thy neighbor - and actually put it into practice. And when I say practice, I mean he made a practical, easy-to-comprehend and live strategic response: he built houses with and for people who couldn't afford them, and made it possible for those marginalised and disenfranchised by our society's way of doing things to live with a greater measure of dignity. Prophetic statements are better fleshed out with prophetic acts. Millard Fuller's life shows us how.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dealing with the Past

Today is a huge day in my home of northern Ireland as it sees the latest development in the long-running peace process. The report of the Consultative Group on the Past - established to recommend how we might find ways to deal with the legacy of nearly 4000 murders, 43 000 physical injuries, a divided society, and brokenness everywhere - has been published. The report includes suggesting, among many other things, establishing a Legacy commission to investigate violence and provide information, a bursary to address the effects of the conflict including addiction and suicide prevention, and calling on churches to take responsibility for their/our role in nurturing the social context in which the conflict could occur.

It's a controversial report - very little in northern Irish public life isn't controversial - because it deals with the monumental pain of decades in which neighbors suspected neighbors, people were blown up in public places, and nobody could feel entirely safe. The suggestion that family members of people killed should receive an 'acknowledgement payment' has been particularly focused on in the media, because it makes no distinction between non-combatant civilians on the one hand and combatants in the police, army, and illegal paramilitary organisations like the IRA and their Loyalist counterparts on the other. There are good reasons for this, for victim hierarchies serve to continue our society's division; just as much as there are completely legitimate reasons for some to feel hurt by the suggestion that their pain is equal to that of the relatives of someone who killed another person before being killed themself.

It's important reading for anyone with an interest in northern Ireland, as well as anyone who cares about questions of dealing with violence and trauma anywhere. Perhaps the most important element is the fact that the principles of restorative justice are implied in the consultative group's report; an attempt to transcend revenge and establish a way forward based on the understanding that justice and mercy go hand in hand - and that your security and mine depend on each other.

The Consultative Group on the Past have given more serious attention to the question of trauma and societal healing than almost any other initiative anywhere in the world, and their report is a document of historic significance. I can't over-emphasise how important it may be for people to read, whether or not they have any connection with northern Ireland. We in northern Ireland were stunned by the ongoing, repeating and spiralling wounds of our recent past; and it has taken over a decade to get to the stage of even starting to negotiate our future together. This report builds on the case that burying the scars of violence and trauma do not heal them, any more than vengeance makes a victim feel better in the long term. It might offer some contributions to the questions of conflict and its aftermath that face us all; indeed, as my adopted country of the US emerges from a traumatic period in its own history some of the principles outlined in this report might be useful too.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Best Disney Film You've Never Seen

I’m loving my Blu-ray player and, inspired by the fact that a number of film critics I like have named Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as one of the best releases of the past year, have been watching this fifty year old cartoon in ten minute bursts since the Netflix copy arrived on Monday. It’s twee and sentimental, but also happens to be visually astonishing. The backgrounds in particular are feats of the imagination that amaze; the wicked queen’s (if indeed she is a queen - I haven’t really been following the story) lair has the detail of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ while also reminding me of the production style Tim Burton used more recently in ‘Sweeney Todd’; and the character images are elegant and evocative - a comedy fat king, an embosoming fairy or three, a jutting-chinned handsome prince. Beyond that, the way the Blu-ray makes the film look is almost too good; I like a bit of grain in my old film transfers rather than feeling like I’m watching a robot painting in ‘THX 1138′, but I suppose that’s churlish when faced with the upgraded image available on the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ blu-ray.

Having said that, I’m not writing here to encourage you to watch a Disney fairytale cartoon with Freudian resonance, engaging as that may be. It’s the short film special feature included on the disc that blew me away. ‘Grand Canyon’, a 25 minute live action film putting incredible photography - much of it aerial - of the canyon to the music of Ferde GrofĂ©. I remember seeing such nature documentaries when I was a kid, as the ‘B’ film before movies like ‘The Dark Crystal’; I remember being bored, the anticipation of the main event making patience impossible. I’m guessing that ‘Grand Canyon’ might have been one of the film I couldn’t wait to end; and like many things I wasted as a child, having watched it again the other night, I wish I hadn’t.

Disney’s ‘Grand Canyon’, directed by James Algar is, quite simply, my film of the week; maybe the month; maybe the year. The images evoke the stargate sequence of ‘2001′, making it one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen; the fact that the images are timeless - the Grand Canyon was here before any of us, and will still be here after we’ve gone (if indeed we ever do leave here - but we’ll get to the theology of the afterlife in a future episode ;-)) makes it one of the most disturbing. The lack of tricks available to film-makers in 1958 compared with today makes it a far more naturalistic short than might be made with a computer or IMAX; all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like a live action ‘Fantasia’; and I’d guess that your feelings about ‘Fantasia’ will largely shape your response about ‘Grand Canyon’.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance Festival 2: Mary and Max

One of the surprises of this year’s festival is that the opening night film is a stop-motion animation about the penpal relationship between a lonely Australian girl and a profoundly overweight man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York. If ‘Mary and Max’ had been a live action drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, featuring elegant images of the Manhattan skyline looking like you’ve never seen it before, intercut with a knowing reflection on human isolation and the things that can heal it, this would appear to be the perfect choice for the world’s best known independent film festival. The fact that it’s made of plasticine instead of live action makes it so much more interesting than so many other independent dramas; it was good to see it as the opening night film.

‘Mary and Max’ is sensitive to Asperger’s syndrome and other special needs without being cloying; it’s honest about depression; it’s extremely funny in places without falling into the slapstick trap; the narration from Barry Humphries is perfectly balanced between sweet and harsh (and Hoffman/Collette both articulate what these characters might actually be like the real world); and, most of all, the animation - which took 57 weeks of days that each produced no more than a few seconds screen time is magnificent. Tonally think ‘Wallace and Gromit’ meets ‘Rain Man’ - with the emphasis on the rain. Director Adam Elliott has made an exhilarating film that genuinely deserves a huge audience when it’s released.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sundance Festival 1: Korean documentary 'Old Partner'/Irish short '6 Farms'

My first night at Sundance and it’s freezing. Only on the outside. Am surrounded by people queuing up in front of volunteers with plastic badges hanging from chains round their necks. Some are wearing snazzy warm festival-branded fleeces. They all seem lovely. Film festivals, at times, can be little more than cattle markets or schmooze-zones, and I’m sure Sundance has its share of that - but tonight the audience seemed all about the movie. A Korean documentary about an elderly couple and their ox - I’m not kidding - called ‘Old Partner’ constituted my introductory screening, and I guess all I can say is that it’s as good a film about an elderly couple and their ox could expect to be. Delicate and harsh in the same sentence - as gorgeous images of nature compete with the reality that the husband and the dying ox are both winding down their lives, and neither of them is happy about it. ‘Old Partner’ was followed by a marvelous Irish short by Tony Donoghue, ‘6 Farms’ - a fantastic time lapse still photography piece about Tipperary agricultural traditions. It was like Aardman’s ‘Creature Comforts’ with more literal images. The photographic technique is so complex that this almost certainly is one of the longest short film shoots in history.

Tomorrow I’ve a revisionist Western (is there any other kind these days?), a stop-motion animated film about a penpal relationship between an 8 year old girl and a middle aged obese man with Aspergers, and a boxing documentary about Muhammad Ali that isn’t ‘When we were Kings’. Reports will appear here if the frostbite on my fingers thaws.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

'The Wrestler'

Mickey Rourke plays a version of himself and every other faded star. He’s great.

Marisa Tomei plays a version of the hooker with a heart of gold who’s been around since cinema began. She’s risky.

Evan Rachel Wood plays the angry abandoned daughter archetype. She’s pretty good.

And the wrestlers are great fun; unsurprisingly sweet-natured and kind to each other.

But the film itself…

Well…it’s not that it’s not very good - it’s a well-made, honest little drama of the kind that looked original in the early 90s (think Soderbergh and James Marsh at the beginning of their careers) but there’s nothing in this film that I haven’t seen before. Stories are stories are stories, I suppose; and there aren’t too many to go around, and I’m delighted to see anything that denies the quick fix cosmetic ease with which movie characters often resolve their problems - even ‘Changeling’, perhaps the bleakest story I saw at the cinema this past year, had to have a ‘happy’ ending of some kind. Am also, as listeners will know, a fan of Darren Aronofsky - ‘The Fountain’s one of my favourite films, and ‘Pi’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ are so effective at building a mood of dread that I don’t ever want to see them again. But ‘The Wrestler’ is a B-movie; I think what saves it is that that’s what it seems Aronofsky was trying to make.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

'Gran Torino'

I heard a seventy-eight year old man sing, through a cracked voice, one of the most moving and gentle jazz melodies, as the iconic image of a fetishised sports car being driven into the sunset were projected. And, not for the first time in recent years, I was crying at the end of a Clint Eastwood film. 'Gran Torino', like 'Million Dollar Baby', 'Flags of our Fathers' & 'Letters from Iwo Jima', 'Mystic River', 'A Perfect World', and starting with 'Unforgiven' and 'Bird' twenty years ago, is a film about a man coming to terms with death, and being confronted with the futility of violence. I'm struggling for a word here, but I'll call it the 'joy' of watching this old man working at the peak of his directorial skill - simple set ups, scripts that sound like the way people talk in real life, often lots of unknown actors filling out the cast so the show becomes less of a celebrity-spotting exercise, sparing use of music (usually written by Eastwood himself) combining to produce not only one of the most prolific bodies of work in Hollywood history, but one of the most artful.

Sure, he has made some awful movies - but, as Groucho might say, haven't we all? For every 'Firefox' there's a 'High Plains Drifter' (one of the most gripping - and violent - revenge fantasies I've ever seen, and an early example of Clint's antipathy toward the church) or a 'Bird' (the second best film about jazz ever made, and maybe the best biopic); for every 'Blood Work' there's a 'Bridges of Madison County' (trust me, how many films about love between men and women actually make you believe they're in love?) or an 'A Perfect World' (a film which the Coen Brothers surely relied on for developing the Tommy Lee Jones character, world-weary sherrif, in 'No Country for Old Men').

'Gran Torino' might be the last film Clint Eastwood acts in. So it's a relief - and somewhat bittersweet - for me to report that I think it may be the best performance he's ever given; or at least the best from the twilight era of his life. There are moments in this film that speak to me about my own preoccupation (some would call it an obsession) with violence and non-violence, and I find myself astonished that these ideas come from man who, when he was my age, was playing characters who shot people dead in order to get a laugh. Agreeing with the philosophy outlined in a film is not, of course, enough of a reason to think it's a great movie. And perhaps if I watch it again in a week or a year or two I'll be disappointed (even on the first viewing there are some obvious wrong notes); but for now, I'll say this. The ghost of Dirty Harry is laid to rest. The brokenness of war veterans is honoured while the powers that be, who send young men to die for politics are utterly absent. This film knows that the future of humanity depends on people being able to live together in diversity, putting up with cultural difference, and defending vulnerable members of the community. But it also knows something that the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry didn't: violence begets violence; and only non-violence is powerful enough to neutralise its opposite. How 'Gran Torino' presents the terms of conflict, or how it ultimately addresses them, may not be a textbook example of Gandhian resistance, but it's a far cry from 'Go ahead, make my day'. On the first viewing at least, it's a heartbreaking, beautiful film. If it proves to be its director's last, while I'm greedy for more, I can't thinking of a more fitting swan song.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


‘Chinatown’ again last night.

New(ish) TV. New Blu-Ray player (though couldn’t watch the ‘Chinatown’ disc on it - my copy’s region 2 and haven’t figured out how to de-code Sylvania; so watched it on my perfectly acceptable forty-two dollar Phillips multi-region machine). No RGB cable (it’s connecting the Blu-Ray player). No HDMI cable (guy in the shop offered it to me first at $80, then said the cheapest he could do was $50. Went home, clicked three times, got one on amazon marketplace for less than two bucks. Should arrive tomorrow.) So, Region 2 ‘Chinatown’ using one awful lead - picture quality therefore reminded me of ‘Grindhouse’. Didn’t want to be reminded of ‘Grindhouse’.

‘Chinatown’. Probably for the tenth time. First time was a pan and scan late night ITV screening in about 1991. Second time was when I bought an early widescreen VHS copy, all gauzey - like when they put Vaseline on the lens to make an older actor look youthful, or to pretend that they’re dreaming. Got three or four viewings out of that tape. Then it was one of the first DVDs I ever owned. Now it’s the second generation UK DVD, apparently with a new transfer - though with one lead you can’t tell - but that’s my fault.

Ten times with a film is enough to make you complacent; but when it’s ‘Chinatown’ you could go on watching forever. I see new things in it every time. What I saw last night?




The American Dream.



Venetian blinds.



Throw in a bit of religion and you’d have the Great American Novel. Which is not far off saying that you might have America.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


My friend John died a year ago today. I have been comforted, in the midst of grief, at the gift of knowing him; and I am re-posting below words that I wrote at the time, to bear witness to the love and life of this man.

January 4th 2008: John O’Donohue was my friend. We had been getting to know each other for almost four years now – a lifetime in our transient world – the very world that John’s words sought to slow down. I felt that we had in some sense adopted each other as compadres on the spiritual journey – a 50-something former priest taking into his life a 30-something former evangelical; both of us bound by our common Irish heritage, love of cinema, and fondness for sipping what he insisted on referring to as ‘firewater’. We spent many hours talking on the phone, eating together, and engaging in two of our favourite pursuits: whiskey and talking about movies.

He had a way with words that made you feel whole again – he created a space with language, both spoken and written, that felt like the home you never knew you were missing, but now never wanted to leave.

His work on retrieving the earthiness of celtic spirituality and helping make sense of it in a postmodern world is so profound that its impact has not yet been fully felt, and it represents something rare in a consumerist, post-Britart culture: a work of art that will outlast its author.

He managed also to write with the utmost seriousness and care for language, making his books the kind that you read slowly, savouring each page; meanwhile, his public talks were characterised by an indelicate Irish charm and the kind of wit that leads to laughter so deep it makes you feel like you belong.

What many may not know is that in addition to his ministry in the Catholic priesthood, and latterly as a writer and speaker, he was a serious environmental activist, helping to spearhead a small group that successfully prevented the despoilment of the Burren, one of Ireland’s most stunning natural landscapes. He put his reputation on the line to save something worth preserving, even being prepared to go to prison to do so.

In his activism, as well as his writing and speaking, and most of all, in his life, he wanted people to have shelter from the storms their lives would bring; when I once told him of my own struggles with serious depression and anxiety he clapped his hands together in a gesture of defiance and almost shouted at me: ‘May those feckin devils stay far from your door and NEVER TOUCH YOU AGAIN. You are worth far more than you think.’ His presence in my life made me believe it.

John knew that we live in the intersection of the sacred and the profane, and he wanted to nudge us in the direction of understanding that holiness has more to do with being aware of the light around us than moral puritanism. In the introduction to his most recent book ‘Benedictus’, published only a couple of months ago, he writes of how in any given day, some of us humans will experience the shock of being told of the sudden death of a friend. John wanted us to be tender to the fact that the faces of strangers we meet every day all hide secrets that are both divine and tragic. We do not always know who among us is suffering some unnameable torment, nor who is rejoicing at the blessing of a lifetime.

Last night, I became one of the people he wrote about – when I received an email (another manifestation of this world’s transience) informing me of his peaceful death, while asleep, on holiday in France. It is bewildering to note that a man who brought so much life around him is dead. But it is also vital to remember that he saw death as a path to freedom. He had spent so much time ministering with the dying – one of the greatest privileges of ministry, as far as he was concerned – that I felt he was, while totally committed to living life to the full, somehow also looking forward to his own death. Not in a morbid sense, but simply because he did believe that our own death is a step forward. He often said ‘when you enter into freedom, possibility comes to meet you’ – I imagine that he is, right now, experiencing a kind of freedom about which he would – at the very least - write some pretty marvellous poetry. It is hard to begrudge him his death when part of him was so ready for it.

I wonder how he’d describe it. For those of us left behind, well, we miss him dearly, and are grateful for the spaces he opened in our lives. I find it almost impossible to believe that he is gone; but if he was right about his own future, we will meet again.

BY JOHN O’DONOHUE, from ‘Benedictus – A Book of Blessings’

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the music of laughter break through your soul.

As the wind wants to make everything dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the freedom of the monastery bell,
May clarity of mind make your eyes smile.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May a sense of irony give you perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May fear or worry never put you in chains.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
To hear in the distance the laughter of God.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire & Frost/Nixon

In the interests of being comprehensive, now that I've seen them, I can happily say that, for me, 'Slumdog Millionaire' is one of the year's best films, and 'Frost/Nixon' is not.

'Slumdog' is an astonishing array of Bollywood parody/homage mingled with a story of childhood trauma that bears comparison with 'City of God' or 'Schindler's List' and one of the most interesting treatments of 'money doesn't conquer all but love might' I've ever seen. My first viewing was colonised by the fact that the movie has been marketed as a feelgood fantasy, when in fact it plumbs the depths of modern day child slavery, and features, about forty minutes in, one of the most distressing images I've ever seen in a film; the rest of the film could not recover. This was a good thing, an indicator of how powerful the first act had been. I returned a couple of days later, partly because I wanted to get the distressing parts of the film out of my system, partly because I knew it deserved a second look. Going in knowing the emotional terrain of the movie meant that I didn't spend most of its running time squirming; and ultimately I found it utterly exhilirating. Danny Boyle has fused the rapid fire editing chic of 'Trainspotting' with a Simon Beaufoy script about globalisation, poverty, how the largest city in the world swallows up the most vulnerable, and the power of a TV show to monopolise the public imagination. There's even a bit of comment about religious sectarianism, and a glance cast at Islam - I'm not sure this is entirely successful, as it's not clear on first viewing just what is being said - but this might be the point: Boyle and Beaufoy are just showing us what Mumbai is like, not telling us what to think, except when it comes to how consumerism, at best, is its own reward; at worst, it kills people. 'Slumdog Millionaire' is a magnificent film.

'Frost/Nixon', on the other hand, is a well-directed story that I have seen before. Lovely to watch the actors - Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in particular - do their thing, but I felt that there was less to this than the sum of its parts. Presidents are vulnerable human beings too; interviewers have mixed motives. But - and I'll go out on a limb here - I've always been a defender of Ron Howard, and will continue to say that he knows how to make entertaining movies. If someone could erase 'A Beautiful Mind' from the lexicon of film history I'd make that statement even stronger.