Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lenten Film Series 2015

Restorative Cinema (formerly known as Franklinton Underground Cinema) will be partnering with Confluence Program Director Jed Dearing this year to curate the 2015 Lenten Film Series.  The series will return to St. John's Episcopal Church for five Sunday nights in March to screen five recent films from 2014 with the intent of exploring the spiritual discipline of lament that “not only allows us to see the depth of the world’s brokenness (including our own and the church’s complicity in it); but also shapes resurrection as a journey that involves grief, truth, conversion, and forgiveness.”  Each film follows a necessary path into an unknown - with a respect & hope that new life will emerge through the mysterious tension of pain & grace.  See brief descriptions of each film below.


"Ida" (2014) - Pawel Pawlikowski 
Sunday March 1st Trailer

The series book-ends with two films about "alien" experiences, where the discovery of truth illuminates the power of seduction, the bitterness of the past, and the sometimes harsh reality of exploring the unknown.  Our first film, "Ida", is a classic Lenten film in the vein of Bergman & Dreyer. Ida is an orphan who has been raised in a convent - and is now a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, on the verge of taking her vows.  She is told by her prioress that she must first visit her aunt, "Red Wanda" (her only surviving relative), to learn about her family's history.  For Ida, this experience becomes a journey of unexpected initiation that will challenge her belief system, identity, and desired resistance.


"Calvary" (2014) - John Michael McDonagh 
Sunday March 8th Trailer

The film begins in a Catholic confessional with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), whose life has been threatened (during confession) by an anonymous parishioner who intends on directing his retributive violence towards a "good priest", so that the Church might begin practicing the absorption of it's own sins.  The rest of the film is a process of discovering just how much sin one priest can absorb in a week's time.  With an ensemble cast of small town characters, we find ourselves embedded with them inside questions of integrity, self-defense, codependency, sexuality, truth & virtue - where we are eventually brought into a crescendo of life & death & meaning & mystery.


"Locke" (2014) - Steven Knight 
Sunday, March 15th Trailer

The series centerpiece could just as well be understood as "Do The Right Thing" for upper-middle-class white people.  :) Satire aside, this film brilliantly opens up the conversation about what it means to be right or "good" when doing the right thing comes into direct conflict with other equally necessary responsibilities, obligations, and commitments.  We are witness to Ivan Locke's "crisis of limitation", and possibly the seeds of his own transformation.  Dramatized only by phone calls, the ever-incredible Tom Hardy is the only actor physically present in the whole film, carrying the weight of every emotion with subtlety, grace, and internal contradiction.


"Snowpiercer" (2014) - Joon-Ho Bong
Sunday, March 22nd Trailer

Snowpiercer might be the first action genre film in the history of the Lenten Film Series, and deservedly so.  Like none that any of us have (likely) seen, this film deconstructs the White Male Saviour Complex by making a guerrilla revolutionary leader out of our own Captain America (Chris Evans).  A political film about the violence of inequality on the surface, we soon find that we are submerged into our own addictions, and that the answers we are looking for will require naked vulnerability rather than guilt-reducing sacrifice.


"Under The Skin" (2014) - Jonathan Glazer
Sunday (Palm), March 29th Trailer

This film is the cinema-graphic child of Stanley Kubrick & David Lynch.  Power & Seduction & Desire & Loneliness & Abandonment & Powerlessness.  Not-Your-Typical alien narrative, we are in constant tension with the hidden internal & and the literal universal.  Mystery abounds as we experience disturbance & disconnection around each bend, but it's the moments of compassion and emotional exposure that keep us cultivating empathy, even as we confront our own elemental nature.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Violence & Vulnerabiility Part I - "Snowpiercer" (2014)

This film is not interested in being subtle, which sometimes I dig, and other times (Crash), I basically loathe.  Unlike Crash, however, this film has the advantage of science fiction, which often heightens the cinematic & decreases the preachy tone.  Also, I am a bit-of-a fool for bottom-up, rage-against-the-machine revolutions.  (I will try to remain somewhat objective here, but you know...)  The other film that comes to mind is Gravity, which was visually stunning, but wasn't quite as fascinating as Snowpiercer or Jonathon Glazer's recent Under The Skin.  Anyways...

Here are a variety of excellent reviews on the film, and then my brief processing of how I believe Bong Joon Ho has significantly challenged the White Savior Complex, among other things.

AV Club - Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (...Snowpiercer builds to an ending that isn’t conventionally satisfying, but displays a too-rare sense of integrity.)

Roger Ebert - Fascinating political/historical context from Scout Tafoya (...It’s a sci-fi movie with a liberal heart that can’t be hidden by explosions or studio interference; a blockbuster that wants you to be angry.)

New York Review of Books - J. Hoberman (...A former student activist who has been associated with a succession of small leftwing parties, Bong is an anti-authoritarian populist with a strong sense of the absurd.)

Film Comment - Bong Joon Ho interviewed by David Gregory Lawson

(Spoilers immediate)

Bong Joon Ho has given us an epic allegorical tale of another great flooding of the earth, but this time with snow instead of rain - and set-in-motion by man, not God.  The film seems significantly interested in deconstructing the White Savior Narrative with none other than Captain America himself (Chris Evans) bearing the wounds of Christ, rejecting the temptation of THE blue-eyed devil (Ed Harris-Truman Show), and sacrificing his arm to save an enslaved young black child.  It was the perfect contextual situation for a director like Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), who seems to have found a unique vocation within white guilt fantasies.  Mr. Zwick's ending of this film would have surely included our Captain standing alongside the adolescent Yona and child Timmy, as they confront a world without technology.  Bong Joon Ho, however, doesn't give that grace to (Captain) Curtis.  He is not included in the new heaven & earth.  White guilt dies with him.  And with that, two false gods have been destroyed - (White) Power & Technology.  A new narrative has been constructed.  Only the most vulnerable remain.

(The character of Yona, who is clearly an addict, might seem excessively incapable of leading humanity into the new world since she has never touched soil.  But she is our only representative of spirituality in the film, being directly labeled clairvoyant - "a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact".  At the very least, she is ideally prepared for the mysteries of life outside the train.  And her addiction with Kronol - industrial waste - is suggestive of our own addiction with industry, science, technology - all of which are exploited by the Wilford's "sacred" engine religion - but are obvious barriers to genuine spirituality.  The addiction ends with the train crash.  Life no longer needs to be tolerated or maintained, but actually lived.)

Getting off that circular train of brutal injustice & inequality (cloaked in images reminiscent of Oz, Willie Wonka, The Shining, Hunger Games) is obviously a form of liberation from that mobile concentration camp of cult religiosity.  But more than that, this freedom is defined by powerlessness & dependence - the necessary reality of the human condition that all Men of Power have tried to deny with wealth & politics & technology.  When Yona and Timmy look around their new environment, they encounter cold, snow, sunshine.  Off in the distance, they see a polar bear.  A sign of life.  But their survival is not guaranteed - and like any necessary "Into the Wild" experience - we cannot "know" until we deny one thing (power) and embrace another (vulnerability).  They must now confront the harshness of reality, like a bottomed-out addict beginning day one of recovery.

Decidedly creating this type of anarchist narrative may seem bleak, even harsh - but I see it as hopeful, as internally necessary. (Inner anarchy?)  Accepting the vulnerability of our own mortality (that science & technology cannot finally save us from), might actually give us capacity for being emotionally human, free from anxiety disorders, and able to be present to things unseen.  It may even give us the kind of sight that leads towards maturity - sometimes known as "Falling Upward".  Or at least it might make us aware of our evolving nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact), in which our phones have become sacred, and AT&T divine.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Mysterious Intoxication

These two films.  Pretentious maybe, but willing to press into the mystery of being human, into spiritual encounter, and into the depths of cinema.  What Tarkovsky articulated as "inner space".

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for the connecting a few of the dots.


Monday, March 17, 2014

25th Hour (2002)

"I need you to make me ugly" feels more like a confession than a command.  It is something that happens in White America when privilege is actually held accountable.  Ugly needs to rise to the surface and be made known.  Monty understands this is going to happen one way or another, and in his powerlessness & limitation, he demands his childhood friend Frank to execute upon him a bloody, swollen face that might act as a kind of mask for his first few days of incarceration.

Monty likely recognizes that he is not as fiercly independent as Lukas Jackson or as clever as Andy Dufrasne - and that real prison is nothing like movie prison.  And to resist or escape actually misses the point.  Confrontation is necessary now, and though the dream of becoming anonymous in a small town out west is palpable, it would still just be an avoidance - and he would still be ugly deep within, seeping with privilege and pride.  He would still be trying to wipe the "fuck you" off the mirror.

There is the anticipation, however, of a kind of resurrection through this process for Monty - much more than his friends might ever experience in their own life - and seemlingly more than post 9/11 America, who has been working around the clock to keep it's ugliness cloaked from itself, let alone the rest of the world.  Monty's choice to eventually accept the consequence of physical imprisonment might also be the gateway to an unseen freedom of mind, heart, and soul. Selling out Nikolai or driving out West with his father are both choices that will not liberate the soul - and Monty intuitively seems to recognize this within himself.  Otherwise, he wouldn't have the strength to confront it, to take the beating, to discover something authentic about himself.

America on the other hand, seems to have traded in it's own soul for corporate religious industrial technological whatever, many moons ago.  It has too much to justify & defend to see itself as apart of the problem.  But Spike Lee seems to care about America, about New York City, and depicts it as an imperfect, yet beautifully diverse place.  Like Monty, America still has something to offer, but unless it can take responsibilty for it's political/economical/religious limitations & failures (Katrina/Wall Street/Trayvon), it will only become more violent, more divided, full of greed & entitlement & ugly.

To be honest, it will look like (as it already does) The Wire.  Or God-forbid, Breaking Bad.

Which, if nothing else, is suggestive of our need to continually return to The Mirror until we can see ourselves in it. This is the only place we can cultivate empathy as an antidote to shame & judgement - as a way of moving from violence towards understanding.  (See "Stevie" or "The Interrupters", both by Steve James).  It has to be an intentional process, and sometimes, as with Montgomery Brogan, it begins with a staunch "Fuck You!".


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Take Shelter (2011)

"Take Shelter powerfully lays bare our national anxiety disorder — a pervasive dread that Curtis can define only as 'something that's not right.'" - Melissa Anderson

Anxiety is related to our fragility, our vulnerability, in a world that doesn't feel secure, whether it actually is or not.  When we have something to lose, we feel insecure, which creates anxiety.  Deeper level anxiety comes from the experience of shame (maybe from failure, hand-me-down wounds, cultural or religious perfectionsim, or various levels of abuse), which unless we are able to process through it towards understanding & acceptance, we won't learn much about ourselves, who we are, or who we are becoming.  This type of anxiety will absolutely enslave or imprision us - and it has already been proven that anxiety is more powerful than logic in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress.  I would also suggest that our basic insecurities & anxieties can carry that same power when we are forced to confront our limitations, often due to some level of relative "crisis".

Curtis becomes less functional as he begins to obsess over the visions of a coming apocalyptic storm, which is the product of the inner storm brewing within him.  Like many men in the Western world, Curtis is expected to control his external world - to provide, to be responsible, to work, to fight if necessary, and to ultimately be perceived as strong & good & right.  To ask for help is considered a failure.  To have your integrity in question is an abomination.  To admit that you are a flawed human being is incomprehensible - something only necessary for alcoholics and drug addicts, not "good" people.  But for all of us, this admonition of being imperfect, an addict, a sinner, a slave, a prisoner, a prostitute, a failure, etc., (whether literal or symbolic) is the only gateway to any kind of inner life, emotional process, and authentic spirituality.

This is why the symbolic scene of death & resurrection (baptism) in Take Shelter is so powerful.  As Richard Rohr describes, " more surrendering than concluding, more trusting than fixing. You cannot get yourself enlightened by any known program, ritual, or moral practice. All you can do is stay on the journey, listen to it's lessons, both agony & ecstasy, and ask for that most rare & crucial of gifts: true openness, which Jesus called trust or faith. The (shelter) door (that God opens out of complex consciousness) is usually some form of suffering (physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, structural) for almost all of the enlightened & saved people I have ever met. ...Initiation always taught the young men to die before they died, and then they would begin to live.  Apparently it is the best and clearest way to put everything in proper order & alignment. As Saint Francis put it, "If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm."

From this perspective, I believe the final moments of the film become much less ambigious.  As the "second death" approaches, instead of experiencing fear, shame, disappointment, blame, or insecurity, they experience a sense of empowerment in their connection - in their understanding of who they are and what they need - together.  They haven't "overcome" fear as much as they have accepted their limitations, their vulnerabilities, their need for a "higher power". They can stand together and confront the storm, rather than hide in isolation or divorce.  The innate feeling of powerlessness towards something bigger than themselves has become the power with which they can now encounter the unknown.  This shared vulnerability has become the foundation of their marriage.  And maybe for the first time, do they really understand what it means to become "one".

"Okay".  (Samantha's final word as the storm approaches)

Samantha (whose name apparently means "God Heard" or "Listener") directly represents spirituality in the film.  She carries the inner strength & feminine resilience that belies Curtis.  She is the "spirit" that empowers Curtis to confront his fears.  She "knows" without knowing, and she gives sight to the blind.  She gives Curtis the necessary grace to fail, to learn, to become human - with appropriate boundaries, with emotional honesty, with confrontation.  In their darkest, most "grave" moment, she is mature enough to see "The" opportunity for resurrection.  She exemplifies the real meaning of marriage, and subverts the traditional white male (King James) interpretation of "submission".

She is absolutely "prepared" for the storm.


I love this film and this filmmaker. Jeff Nichols & Steve McQueen, both with three films under their belt, have different, but equally necessary cinematic perspectives that open up the conversation about what it means to love and be loved, and about what it looks like to evolve as emotional creatures in an anti-emotional modern world that defines "progress" in technological terms rather than psychological. Along with Wes Anderson & Terrence Malick, their films express something of what it means to confront death & vulnerability as the means to reconcile our inherent brokenness in relationship to each other, and in relationship to God.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Somewhere (2010)

"He is (lame).  He just happens to be there...sitting somewhere.  He doesn't have any initiative or determination.  He doesn't ask for anything.  He does what (his publicists) tell him to do, but we (rarely) hear a word from him.  He does not make life happen, he waits for others to make it happen, and then perhaps reacts.  He's not going anywhere with his life, and he doesn't even care that he's not going anywhere.

This description fits all too many men today, not only in our American culture, but in much of the world.  Most men do not know how to motivate themselves.  If they have any motivation at all, it is for some form of immediate money, sex or power.  Nothing more.  They have no internal motivation, and without the external motivations of sex/power/money, they do not know how to choose or make decisions about what they want to do with their lives." Richard Rohr OFM (Three Kinds of Men)

For all of Somewhere's overt geometrical symbolism that bookends the film, we are unfortunately left with too few (if any) emotional touchstones.  "I'm fucking nothing.  Not even a (film)".  It's more lost in translation than Lost in Translation.  I am always intrigued by Sofia's interest in seeking out something human in the world of extreme privilege & excess, but she seems so opposed to her characters potentially Breaking Bad that she instead breaks bland - especially with Johnny Marco.

I disagree with Ebert that Johnny is experiencing depression.  There seems to be no internal dilemma or discontentment which may be cause for some form of chemical imbalance - or vice versa.  He isn't apparently experiencing anything except a brief buzz or erection - neither of which he seems to really desire as much as sleep.  He has no emotional life, and doesn't seem aware that such an experience actually exists.  He seems confused when he receives various text messages that asks "why are you such an asshole?" or "what's your fucking problem?".   When asks if he studied method acting, he replies that he doesn't really follow a particular method. :)  When asks "Who is Johnny Marco?", he replies, "ummm...".

All this seems to suggest that Sofia intentionally created an extremist white male character of excessive privilege with no inner (spiritual/emotional) life.  He isn't even self-possessed enough to be a true narcissist.  He just seems removed - mostly childlike in his interactions - extremely obedient.  An arrested adolescent who is neither content or discontent - who doesn't experience guilt or shame or happiness or joy.

It feels like an (opportune) indictment on the Utopian fantasy of white male privilege - money, sex, celebrity, privacy, and non-ethnic ubiquity (with the exception of non-white servants of course).  All this without apology, awareness of other, desire for meaning, or (subversively) without need to violently defend or justify these fantastical circumstances.  ("ummm")  Somehow though, it doesn't translate as an indictment - as one (white male) review states, "Her film captures this sense of wonder and of estrangement from self..." - as if that is something we should want to experience or "capture", which only seems to confirm the fantasy (even if inadvertent).  What was meant to be poetic, might (beneath the surface) actually be political.

The film ultimately, however, seems to fail as a poem or a politic. Cleo (12 year old daughter) is supposed to be the vehicle of awareness & change for Johnny.  (This is where the film really begins to lose it's ground.)  She is juxtaposed against every other dehumanized, objectified female in the film - which appears to be the point - but Johnny only recognizes this in the most extremely subtle of ways (as if Sofia is intent to avoid any emotional device within a thousand yards of melodrama), which makes the final (could have been really powerful) scene completely unearned as either reality (walking dead?), symbol (into the wild?), or metaphor (shawshank?).


To help me explain, I will default to a portion of Kartina Richardson's enlightening review...

The banality of the surface is an attractive and easy subject to explore successfully for those wishing to create art, but who, for whatever reason, are unable to think about the metaphysical ideas that make great film great films. This is because they have vulgarized trying. They are minimizing. For lack of better articulation at the moment, I will awkwardly call it the “Countersignaling” movement or aesthetic. 
(In Coppola's films, and films that share a similar style (I hesitate to use the term mumblecore because it’s farther reaching than that), trying is not only vulgar but unenlightened; trying to be sexy, fancy, feminine, masculine, or successful. Trying to do anything big is bad. In a small way this is good; there is no shortage of awful hollywood blockbusters that promote ridiculously plastic ideas that confine.) 
Countersignaling is an aesthetic unique to the very privileged. Of the young, white, educated, liberal, upper middle/middle class. It isn't a celebrated attitude of poor Americans, or the children of immigrants, or Americans of color of any economic class. It isn't an attractive aesthetic to those who have already been minimized by the world and fight against that to assert their value. 
But as much as I dislike the aesthetic I do understand why it exists. Countersignaling is a reaction to plasticity. Money grants automatic importance and for many liberal, artistic, educated folk, that privilege leads to discomfort and guilt. But a caving to that guilt instead of true examination, turns the artist’s work into a constant minimizing. The result then is false: If it were actual minimization the film itself would not exist. The very act of making something is, to to varying degrees, asserting your voice, asserting your importance, trying. So the film is reaching. Reaching in every way for diffidence (shot composition, costume, music, casting, etc) when real diffidence is not actually there. 
The mundanity of our realities and the moments we escape numbness are actually extremely interesting. Appealing because they have both light and dark sides, but Coppola only makes small comments on the surface of these moments. She never delves deeper. I don't want to see characters sweetly discovering and experiencing these moments. I’d much rather see characters creating escape like Kit in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands.

As the engaged observer, I was desperate to discover, experience, and grieve with Johnny his "nothingness" - his emotional poverty - his need for maturity - his need to be known - as I have been able to do with Kit, Jake LaMotta, Freddie Quell, Solomon Northup, and even Llewyn Davis.  Sofia did not allow me that grace, because she never allowed Johnny to experience it for himself. That makes me question her own relationship with grace.  After-all, this is her third film about this particular "condition" of celebrity.  Even if I understand what this trilogy might mean for us - I am even more curious about what it means for her.  The scene where Johnny is sending Cleo off to camp, he yells, "Sorry I haven't been around!".  She can't hear him due to the loud helicopter behind him - which felt reminiscent of Apocalypse Now footage, where Sofia would have been close to Cleo's age.  Is she subtly grieving her childhood - or feeling antagonistic about Hollywood?

Is she using these three films to confess her own privileges as an "independent" artist?  Or hide them?

I don't know.

Who is Sofia Coppola?


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thoughts on "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Admittedly - even after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis twice - I haven't been able to make an emotional connection to the film or the character.  That, however, appears to be the point.  The more I consider it, the more it seems that the Coen's are intent on keeping their audience at a distance so that we feel just as disconnected as everyone else does in the film, including Llewyn.  If empathy is to be experienced, it only comes in the form of frustration & irritability & resisted antagonism.  Llewyn never really loses his shit, so to speak.  He can be an asshole, or inconsiderate, or harsh - but we never really see or experience the "inside" of Llewyn Davis (in part because he hasn't really experienced it yet himself). We don't get to grieve with him the suicide of his partner.  We don't get to meet his two year old son in Akron.  And just when we sense we might participate in reconciliation between Llewyn and his father - Llewyn's dad shits himself.

Instead of empathy, we find ourselves experiencing something more like sympathy - especially when Llewyn discovers in Chicago that his music (and therefore he) is "worthless" - unlike Troy Nelson, who (according to Bud Grossman) seems to "connect" with people.  Point made.  But the bigger point is Llewyn's loss of "harmony" with the world of music & musicians.  Trust is broken - and Bud inadvertently twists the knife in what's left of Llewyn's beloved folk expression.

The lyrics of an earlier tune thus become more relevant...

Hang Me, Oh Hang me... I'll be dead and gone.. 
wouldn't mind the hangin... but the layin in the grave so long  
poor boy... i been all around this world. 
put the noose around my neck... hung me up so high  
last words i heard em say... won't be long now fore you die 
poor boy... i been all around this world

In an effectively mature approach, the Coen's submit to Llewyn's youth.  He's immature, and what's happening "inside Llewyn Davis" cannot yet be understood, accepted, or articulated.  It's winter - and he's surrounded by suicide, abortion (including an aborted abortion), rejection, resistance, loss, distance, detachment, and dark irony.  The most obvious irony being that most of the songs he has tried to make a career singing are about farewells, grievances, and pain & loss.  No longer just understood as "tradition", the songs have begun to manifest through Llewyn's own experiential brokenness.  Instead of singing the songs, they have now begun to sing him (into maturity - if he survives).

The final irony is the sequel, where we watch Bob Dylan get sung by his own songs for an entire decade or more.  From that POV, the success that Llewyn sought may have only resulted in a different kind of detached suicide or abortion - which is something that he seems to authentically understand some fifty years later.  For us though, opening up to our earlier experiences of being powerless from failure or disconnection, being emotionally naive, or feeling forlorn might offer some insight into this necessary portrait of a young artist.

About the cat, however, I don't know.