Monday, March 12, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Back in 2016, I wrote, "I found Captain America Civil War fascinating for it's willingness to confront the consequences of justified violence...particularly with Black Panther who enacts a bold, powerful, and personal (rather than political) act of non-violence." Having seen most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the Captain America trilogy has the most to offer in terms of complex character development and narrative structure. CACW is The Dark Knight of this decade, seamlessly weaving together superb entertainment with complicated grief, questions of moral responsibility, political exposition, and the ethics of justification. Truly impressive.

Black Panther is introduced in CACW, traveling with his father King T'Chaka to address the UN regarding recent acts of violence in Africa involving the Avengers. A terrorist bombing kills T'Chaka - which integrates T'Challa (Black Panther) into the various dilemmas confronting the split super-factions. Iron Man leads the White Guilt liberal side, while Captain America's side maintains his 1940s conservatism. T'Challa caring more about the truth than politics, advances himself to a moderate distance, observing and learning before acting. This allows him the objective (but still empathetic) position to confront major villian, Helmut Zemo (who has lured Iron Man & CA into violence against one another).

T'Challa explains to Zemo, "Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I'm done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough." Zemo tries to commit suicide, but T'Challa won't allow it. "The living are not done with you yet", he proclaims with a mix of compassion and justice. Continuing down this spiritual path, T'Challa also grants Bucky Barnes asylum in Wakanda, offering to free his mind from captivity. Black Panther in CACW brings a sacred energy (beyond vibranium) that allows for new possibilities, new choices.

Marvel's Black Panther (2018) film is set in the days following the events of CACW. We quickly catch up with T'Challa traveling back to Wakanda, who makes a stop somewhere in rural Africa to obtain Wakandan missionary/warrior Nakia - so she can attend T'Challa's coronation ceremony. She is undercover, riding with (kidnapped?) women who are being transported by an African military convoy. Unfortunately, this extraction requires the unprovoked violent extermination (rather than de-escalation) of the heavily armed soldiers and subsequently, the awkward abandonment of innocent women and children in the dark of night. (Why can't they hitch a ride on the Wakandan aircraft?) Already, we seem to have departed from the ethical concerns & spiritual consciousness of T'Challa in CACW. It's a small scene meant to introduce characters, but there is still an opportunity to philosophically separate yourself by how a situation like this is handled. (Not to mention the technological possibilities of vibranium) Is King T'Challa not capable of offering something more?

The prologue previous to the Nakia pick-up was a flashback to 1992 in Oakland, CA (with Too $hort, rather than Tupac, on the radio) where King T'Chaka is seemingly forced to kill his own brother (Prince N'Jobu, Wakandan spy) - who pulled a gun when confronted with the truth of his underground activities. The situation has an Old Testament vibe to it, but still perpetuates the Black on Black violence narrative (as above). This too could have been handled differently, but was focused on the ends (rather than the means) of introducing the backstory of our villain, Erik Killmonger, the newly orphaned nephew of the King.

I know I am holding Black Panther (2018) to higher standard, but if there was even a hint of internal conflict in either of those initial sequences, it would be less an issue. The question I keep wrestling with - How can T'Challa be a champion of non-violence with Whitey Zemo in Civil War - and only days later commit acts of violence without provocation against his own people - and have nothing to say about it? It doesn't translate.

There obviously aren't many spiritual concerns in the film, but the narrative is heavy with resurrection symbolism - no less than three times. Not once does the symbolical or literal act of "rising from the dead" broaden the perspective of T'Challa or Killmonger. (is The Matrix really that old?) Like Shape of Water, it breeds something smaller. Killmonger arises bent on destruction and power. "Burn it all!" he yells. T'Challa rises (for the second time) only to violently confront his own people. Is that really his only option? Can he not emotionally flank this situation? Killmonger is a wounded orphan. Maybe he just needs someone to (seriously) listen to him? To include him? Both their father's failed to listen - isn't it now T'Challa's responsibility to right this wrong? Can't we dig a little deeper? (Maybe takes some notes from The X-Men?)

Why introduce emotional trauma if you can't follow through? I don't understand. Ryan Coogler intuitively handled these issues in the non-political, humane portrait of Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station - and of course again with the exceptional Creed. (Of note - the Michael B Jordan characters in all three Coogler films are fatherless) This makes me think Coogler was somewhat restricted by Marvel. An obvious loss, if so.

"I'm telling you God's words, not no hustle. Remember that, Brother Baines?" asks Malcolm X upon learning the layers of moral & spiritual betrayal within the Nation of Islam in Spike Lee's 1992 landmark film. Baines had led Malcolm to salvation in prison, but Malcolm's true baptism would come after his voice, power, and position were stripped of him. Maintaining dignity, he journeyed to Mecca, seeking God & Truth beyond the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad. There he found a deeper salvation, a stronger integrity, and new eyes to see the people around him. It was for this perspective that he would be martyred. Erik Killmonger's story shares some similar themes with Malcolm's. They lost their fathers to violence, grew up in poverty, experienced betrayal at the hands of those who had promised protection. They were both victimized by systems of oppression, but only Erik maintains a victim narrative - becoming a self-inducted martyr for it (at the hands of the screenwriters). Where is Killmonger's Mecca? Is he just another monstrous villian?

*Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y'all want me under
All hail King Killmonger

Killmonger is fatally wounded by Black Panther in the final moments after a long chaotic mess of a fight scene. T'Challa brings him to the summit and offers compassion & hope..."We can still heal you." Killmonger, assuming the worst, replies, "Why, so you can lock me up!?" This is a good, but insecure question. T'Challa is unfortunately not given a chance to answer.

Killmonger goes on, "...Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage." I can't argue with his ancestors, but why are the screenwriters so intent on Killmonger being imprisoned by his anger and rejecting reconciliation with his own people? Is he not more than his victimized narrative? What about listening, healing, forgiveness, empowerment? What is honorable about suicide? Is the audience supposed to empathize with this decision? I hope not. Sounds like sympathy at best.

*Tell me who's gon' save me from myself
When this life is all I know
Tell me who's gon' save me from this hell
Without you, I'm all alone
Who gon' pray for me?
Take my pain for me?
Save my soul for me?
'Cause I'm alone, you see

Worse still, T'Challa, who delayed Zemo's death because "the living aren't done with you yet" is somehow indifferent to intervention here with his own cousin (who obviously cannot see beyond his own emotional wounds and doesn't have the spiritual maturity to choose life). Why the sudden apathy? How much more redemptive would it have been if Erik Killmonger was with T'Challa and Shuri in Oakland to begin work on their first outreach center? Full circle in his own neighborhood. Seems like a glaring omission. Unless there is something I don't know (maybe they save Erik anyway - and he heals alongside Bucky?), the Killmonger narrative was a complete failure. "Vengeance has consumed you". Indeed.

His name was N'Jadaka, son of Prince N'Jobu. He deserved better.

As-Salaam-Alaikum Brother.

*Lyrics from the Black Panther soundtrack (written by King Kendrick Lamar)

Friday, March 2, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

The Coen bros have an almost mystical power in how they cultivate both empathy and awkward (sometimes dark) humor from their imperfect characters. Even if they build from a stereotype, it feels like they always begin with real people (and places) - ones they know, have known, or know of. Equally important, the Coens write their characters with genuine compassion. On some level, they understand and love each of them (including their Antagonists).

This approach allows for accountability, dignity, grace, and sometimes even grief. This obviously has a profound impact on how the audience experiences a Coen character (I can't think of one that I ever hated) - which gives us, as Philip Seymour Hoffman said, "a chance to walk out with that person in our hearts", even if they were emotionally disabled. We can still hold onto their humanity.

Martin McDonagh, on the other hand, seems to despise his characters (Dwarfs in particular) - and I must assume, himself as well. I mean, why so much hate Martin? It's not good for you. But I know you have a story to tell about us Americans, cause we can't get right. But if you are going to speak for the people of Missouri, maybe you should spend time with them - maybe visit the cinematic 'Show Me' State. Debra Granik visited, got to know the place, made the film "Winter's Bone" (2010). It was written by a guy who lived there in MO his whole life. Maybe you could have talked with him. But it's obvious you chose Missouri only as a political setting - since principal photography was shot in North Carolina. Worried that we would be too dumb to recognize the political correctness of the location, you lodged the town and state into the abnormally long title of the film. It's not just about Three Billboards, is it Martin? It's really about you. Isn't it?

McDonagh really prides himself on his intellectual superiority above Catholicism (possibly Christianity altogether). Beginning with flashing Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" early in Three Billboards (apparently not knowing that Flannery was a devout Catholic), he hopes to *wink wink* with the academic liberals in the audience. He then offers us the crass and unfunny line "Dixon, you goddamn asshole. I'm in the middle of my goddamn Easter dinner...Sorry, kids." Here he tries to hide his politically correct perspective with non-PC adolescent vocabulary - assuming we are too intellectually disabled (or retarded in his language) to notice. Finally he unloads his real feelings about the Catholic church (likening them to the Crips & Bloods) in a bitter monologue from Mildred who preaches (to a priest) that any abuse in the church makes every Catholic guilty. "Cause you joined the gang, man. And I don't care if you never did shit or you never saw shit or you never heard shit. You joined the gang. You're culpable." Ouch. While I agree with the need for accountability, if Martin were looking in the mirror, he would see the same logic applies to his own industry, particularly the gang who distributed this film, Fox Searchlight Pictures - an American film distribution company within the Fox Entertainment Group, a sister company of the larger Fox studio 20th Century Fox, all owned by Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox. I believe Martin would do well to remember Bob Dylan's wise words - "Your gonna have to serve somebody".

Holding onto Agnosticism by a frayed thread, McDonagh can just barely conjure up a spiritual encounter between Mildred and a deer beneath the billboards. He quickly retracts from this contempative moment by making a joke about Doritos. (Didn't anyone proof-read this thing?) He does the same thing every time grief, guilt, or vulnerability surface - and it feels suffocating. Remember the end of Lebowski, when Walter tosses Donny's ashes to the wind and they blow right into The Dude's face? This is one of the sweetest, earnest, and most honest moments of humor in cinema - perfectly timed - allowing for equal parts sadness, laughter, and empathy. This rarely-to-never happens in Three Billboards, which keeps the audience at an emotional distance. Taking cues instead from Manchester By The Sea, we get toppled by the flashback scene where Mildred tells her daughter Angela "I hope you get raped!" the same day it happens. Failing the courage to explore the guilt & grief, McDonagh prefers Mildred to burn down the police station, kick teenagers in the groin, and demoralize a midget (experiencing consequences for none of those actions). Not yet convinced of his own depravity, Martin's best version of redemption comes from Dixon, the racist white cop, who is prepared to go vigilante by killing word-of-mouth rapists without required evidence. Is that a solution? Well, apparently so, because Mildred joins the cause - taking us to the final scene where McDonagh jumps ship (saying nothing about violence or non-violence or anything else) - and instead chooses to remain safe within the indifferent confines of nihilism. I have to say friends...not only is Martin McDonagh "too clever to be funny, and congenitally incapable of locating a single distinguishing image" (Pinkerton) - he quite simply lacks 'True Grit'.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Always somewhat terrified of Daniel Plainview, I find myself resistant to climb back down into the darkness with him. Once there, it seems impossible to turn back - for better & worse. Adding to the anxiety - my shift towards (objective) film criticism makes me wonder, "am I going to despise this film too?" - "is there anything Sacred about There Will Be Blood?" - "or is it just more political nihilism?" Well, I took the plunge a few months ago. I was privileged to witness TWBB in 35mm this past November. The textures (scratches, dust speckles) and grain embedded in the actual film stock suggest a living form (almost like bacteria) that adds it's own layer to the experience of watching. It allows for the grace of imperfections (more like a mirror that acknowledges flaws, less like a selfie with digital filters). After ten years of existence, this print felt distinguished - adding a masterpiece quality in projection alone. I also saw The Shining in 35mm in October, which I only mention because TWBB is built upon Kubrick's horror classic. Everything from Jonny Greenwood's score to the (alcoholic) father/son relationship to the final act of insanity (inside an Overlook-ish mansion) bleeds Shining. This somewhat immediately draws spirituality into the overall construct, but to what purpose is the question.

Mary, Daniel, and HW

Ultimately, TWBB is less a horror film, and more of a Biblical Epic (mostly through visual subtext - a fine example of Cinema!). "There Will Be Blood" is a phrase Moses says to Aaron in Exodus 7 (not far from the "Magnolia" plague of frogs in Exodus 8). When we first meet Plainview, he climbs out of a dark hell-hole in the ground - then slithers like a snake into the nearest town to cash in on his silver. He rescues HW, an orphaned infant (in an anti-Moses kind of way) to create the illusion of a "family business". The Sunday brothers, Paul & Eli and their father Abel - have a Jacob, Esau, Isaac dynamic. ("My stupid, weak father will give away his lots. Go and take him.") With Paul Dano acting as both brothers, it allows for more mysterious possibilities (especially at first encounter) - such as Eli murdering Paul and pretending to be him during the land proposal with Plainview. (Mysteries like this always suggest something beyond our understanding).

Mary Sunday

Many false, manipulative promises are made between the Sundays and the Plainviews. With grand elucidation, Hell erupts from the initial derrick spewing oil & fire into the sky, casting darkness (and deafness) over everything. Like Aronofsky's 'Mother!' or George Miller's 'Fury Road', this religious outpouring only works because it is primarily, insatiably visual. We cannot look away. This is a profound composition that expands upon itself with each watch. It's an apocalypse - a kind of warning from the book of Revelation. All the way to the final strike. And if that were the whole of the narrative - it would be brilliant, yes - but still mostly an indulgent, profane work - exploiting theology and casting nihilism as an American curse, like most David Fincher films. It would just be Hell on Earth - and that's a cheap, castrated narrative. Immature and powerless.

Mary & HW

So Thank God there is yet a glowing luminosity found in Miss Mary Sunday. Even Plainview seems to see it in her, buying for her a new clean white dress that stands in stark contrast to the dark, earthy colored garments around her. She is the one and only symbol of new life, New Hope. Learning sign language, she cultivates silence with HW. She gently hugs Plainview after he admits "I've abandoned my child" - the only affection he clearly embraces. She is again seen wearing white for her wedding (married by a Priest of true Faith, instead of her brother Eli). Her innocence and their love is the only thing not tainted by the surrounding darkness of oil, greed, and false prophesy. These sequences are brief - easily dismissed. Most critics don't even mention her (though frequently comment on the lack of females in the story). We remember "I drink your milkshake", not the subtle symbolism of Mary Sunday. Her compassion calibrates the narrative, reminding us there is something larger than distrust & damnation. The final act of courage & vulnerability comes as HW reveals to his father their plan to move to Mexico and have their own business. Plainview responds with resentment, "This makes you my competitor." He goes on to explain to HW, "You're an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert...You have none of me in you. You're just a bastard from a basket." HW aptly replies in sign language, "I thank God I have none of you in me." With that, he lovingly detaches from this symbiotic, venomous relationship to join with Mary to begin a new life. Daniel Plainview remains, of course, in his homemade Overlook Hotel, sure to be visited by old ghosts.

Elisa Esposito (Shape of Water)

For those of you who have seen The Shape of Water (2017) - TWBB might give you insight into the emotional maturity of Paul Thomas Anderson vs the spiritual poverty of Guillermo Del Toro. PTA speaks to something larger and/or deeper than Del Toro's victimized narrative of nihilistic violence. GDT paints a (seriously) beautiful picture of (unfortunately) powerless, pitiful creatures that are not able to see beyond their own circumstances (including Richard Strickland). GDT misunderstands and misuses powerful symbols such as water, sign language, and resurrection to communicate his own violent antagonism towards systems of power. That is politically exploitative and spiritually blasphemous. Anti-cinematic.

“Modern mass culture...the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” 
― Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time


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

"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.


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.