An Awfully Deep Theological Thesis on Groundhog Day

On the way to my final exam in moral theology a stray thought crept into my head. It’s been a while since I have watched Groundhog Day so please remember I am working here from memory and I might want to take this back when I give it another goo and in that case you must never talk of this again.

But, Groundhog Day is the definitive Christian, even better, Biblical comedy.

I’ve probably made you like this wonderfully likable film just a little bit less as a result of that mere sentence but hear me out.

In Groundhog Day, Phil spends an eternity trying to achieve enlightenment. When he achieves it, he is rewarded with an escape back into the *real world*.

Most of our culture sees enlightenment as something that bring you escape from this world. Groundhog Day sees it as an escape into this world.

Within the film, the cosmic response to perfection is the resumption of everyday, ordinary, terrestrial life… only seen through entirely new eyes that are able to love. In other words, Groundhog Day is the wittiest introduction to the Gospel of John that you can ever find!

Your Correspondent, For your information, Hairdo, there is a major network interested in him.

Film Review: White Elephant

1.
Right here in the prologue, let me give you my verdict:

This is a film you should track down and watch.

Especially if you are one of the very many Christians who read this blog: please, track down this movie, put your phone away, close over the laptop, draw the curtains, exile distraction and watch this film.

In the rest of what follows, spoilers (if such a term applies) will be shared so come back to read this after watching the film, if you’re the kind of person who thinks movies are ruined by being able to tell what comes next.
2.
In our age, films involving priests as primary characters are rarely satisfying. They are sometimes very good but they usually involve two key character dynamics and one major over-riding point. The character tensions are: how hard it is for a principled individual to work under a hierarchy and how impossible it is to commit to celibacy. The major over-riding point of films involving priests tends to be anti-clerical. Priests are bad and worse, priesthood itself is bad.

3.
In White Elephant you have the character tensions but you do not have the major over-riding point. This places it in a rare group of movies which includes the greatest film I’ve ever seen about vocation, Of Gods And Men, and the recently over-looked Malick movie, To The Wonder. White Elephant tells the story of two dear friends who happen to be priests. The older friend has brought the younger friend, recovering from injuries sustained in a largely undiscussed massacre in the Amazon where a colleague was martyred, to work with him in a massive Argentinian slum, based around the carcass of an unfinished, half constructed super hospital.

4.
The film depicts three communities, interwoven together, overlapping and inter-penetrating. At the heart of the film is the community of priests, centred around Fr. Julian. It includes a volunteer named Cruz who teaches the boys of the favela practical skills, and a driven, compassionate social worker, Luciana, who is played brilliantly by Martina Gusman. These are people of faith* who are possessed by a missional purpose. They want to see the young people of the slum rise out of it. They want to see the dignity of the older people in the slum restored. They want to be enemies of no one. They pray together and they eat together. This is a rare, unflinching look at Christian ministry in community.

The second community the film records is the slum itself, the district of Villa Virgin. The depiction of the city is neither tuned to evoke a sentimental response nor used as a menacing piece of exotica. It is what it is – the result of human beings living close together. There are good things and bad things quite independent of the horrendous decay.

We might called the third community the “Enemies”, although the point of Fr. Julian and Fr. Nicholas’ work is that the people we want to blame must instead be embraced. So the State in the form of an obstructionist city council and a brutal police force are included in this number, as are the two rival drug gangs that vie for control of the district. The plot of the film is nothing more than the interaction of the three main character, Fr. Julian, Fr. Nichols and Luciana, with the different communities that make up Villa Virgin.

* The notes on the film from the Cannes Festival last year describe Luciana as an atheist. Unless I passed out at some point, this is never suggested in the film. In fact, prominently placed above her desk in her office is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One might speculate that this shines light on what faith means in a secular age. Many jump to a conclusion that because a character doesn’t appear in scenes where “devotion” occurs, we imagine that they must be irreligious. The underlying idea revealed in this assumption is that religious faith is a gloss that sits on top of a more primal, universally shared idea of what it means to be a human. Unless I missed some explicit signal somewhere, the reviewers** who have come to this “Luciana is atheist” conclusion are reading stuff into the film that isn’t actually there in a way that allows us to read out of their reviews a lot about the hidden assumptions of our age.

** One could further speculate that the critical dullness elicited by To The Wonder is also at work in responses to White Elephant. An idea of faith as a set of outmoded metaphysical commitments that some people have and that might possibly be of social benefit in some settings can be found again and again (good example here). This is a serious journalistic deficit. Imagine how crippled a film reviewer would be if they believed politics was nothing more than elections?

5.
The film does fall into the trap of nodding towards the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church as an obstacle to the ministry being carried out. However, this nod is restrained. Fr. Julian and his team seek to work under the authority of their bishop. This is at times frustrating. The depiction of hierarchy is still negative, but it is viewed realistically.

6.
The film also falls into the trap of depicting celibacy as almost impossible. This is a pity. But the way that it is done is wonderful, if just taken for what it is. Fr. Nicholas doesn’t fall out of celibacy because celibacy is a horrendous burden, but because friendship is desirable. The sex scene and subsequent relationship scenes that ensue are actually profoundly touching because what is communicated is the hunger for the other, not in some tacky counterfeit idea of a physical urge that can’t be resisted but in the sense of an attraction to the beauty of the other self. Falling out of celibacy is not a torturous existential crisis so much as a thing that happens because he loves his friend and desires her and she him. It is not a deficit in the path he is walking but a surplus in her beauty that possesses him. The falling out of celibacy creates internal contradictions but it doesn’t destroy his vocation.

7.
The reason why I want my Christian friends to watch this film is threefold. Firstly, it is a very good, gripping, thought provoking drama. It is superbly acted, it is restrained, it is interesting. These are rare and good things.

8.
Secondly, the film is an informed attempt to show us what it means to do Kingdom of God work embedded in a community. The protagonists are embedded in their community of faith but they live and dress and speak like the community that makes up the favela. Christians mis-use the word incarnational when they are describing this kind of work. What White Elephant offers us is a depiction of what this kind of community based ministry should look like. It is representational, not incarnational. Worship and mission and social justice work are not segmented. It is integrated. This film manages to do all this without being in any way propagandistic.

9.
Thirdly, the film shows us what our right stance should be towards politics, power and the State. We do not resist the State, any more than we seek to resist the drug dealers. We neither want the State overturned nor see that as our job, regardless of how unjust it is. Equally, we neither want the drug dealers extinguished nor see that as our job, in spite of the damage they inflict. Rather we witness to the State that we are citizens of a different Kingdom. The Argentine flag is a recurring motif in the film. Everyone except Fr. Nicholas is Argentinian and his Belgian origin is much discussed because to be foreign is to be strange. But the Christians in this film demonstrate in their words and their deeds that they are holding the State we call Argentina to account by the standards of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, which is their true home and the entity to which they owe allegiance. If that higher allegiance means they must shelter those that the law of the land deem criminal, then so be it. If that higher allegiance means that they must seek to restrain violence against the State even when they wish they could lash out, then so be it. If that higher allegiance calls them to martyrdom, then so be it.

10.
Final point: The soundtrack kicks in with some stirring stuff at important moments.

Your Correspondent, A cool name for his dog would be “Bark Obama”

Film Review: Mea Maxima Culpa

1.
On Monday night I was in a pub with my eldest sister and in the most natural flow of conversation she repeated from memory, quite faultlessly, the Patrick Kavanagh poem “Iniskeen Road: July Evening”.

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

She started school in the middle 1970’s and went through primary and then third level in Catholic institutions. She is a testimony to the tremendous thing that a Catholic education can be. She is wise and learned and open and utterly rooted to the sensibility of valuing banks and stones and every blooming thing.

2.
I had a very different education and as a result, I do not have the words of Kavanagh or the Bard on my tongue like she does. I can quote the Simpsons fairly well, though. One thing that is learned off by heart (a beautiful phrase that reminds us that the iambic pentameter mimics the rhythm of the human pulmonary system) is the Confiteor. As a result, even though I have all kinds of doctrinal beef with the idea of asking the blessed Mary ever-virgin to pray for me, in my morning prayers I find myself caught up again reciting these words:

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
so I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
and all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

3.
As a child I was taken by the completeness of the prayer. Through my thoughts and words, through my actions and through my inactions – this is a prayer that honours human agency. I wouldn’t have put it like that. It probably just pricked my conscience about the times I saw other boys picking on people and I didn’t do anything to stop it.

As a man, I am taken by how it pairs that responsibility for our actions that seems almost burdensome with an appeal to the community to hold me accountable. How good an idea it is to ask my brothers and sister to pray for me.

4.
I realise now that I learned a simpler form of the prayer. The Confiteor-lite that I was taught lacked the following lines:

through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

I prefer the version I learned. One can protest too much. One can confess too much, believe it or not. There is a refusal to sit within God’s grace that can be revealed by how profusely we condemn ourselves. Sin is a tricky bastard. It can get you, even while you are owning up to being gotten by it.

5.
As a man, I know what “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” sounds like in Latin. It sounds like this:

mea culpa, mea culpa,
mea maxima culpa.

And so I come to this movie I watched this morning. Mea Maxima Culpa is a documentary by the award winning film-maker Alex Gibney. It discusses the particular case of shocking sexual abuse within a school for deaf children run in the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. If you are one of the people who happen by this website sometimes who are a church leader, lay or ordained, Catholic or Protestant, European or American, or in any other way connected to the church: I plead with you to watch this movie.

Mea Maxima Culpa

6.
The important thing about this movie is the good stuff of this movie. What is so important about this film is that it allows the victims to speak. That they do so in sign language is even more affecting. Their suffering will not be silenced. This movie is not without faults but it deserves and needs to be watched because it gives the voice of the victim a chance to be heard.

These men speak with such brave and clear voices about the things they suffered that one cannot but be moved. The same patterns that we see in sex abuse of children across society is evident here again. They all had a disability. The abuse happened in a way that prevented them from easily informing their parents. The abuse happened at the hands of a figure meant to be trusted. The abuse centred on those who were especially vulnerable.

There should be compulsory courses taught in seminary, where the men and women who will lead churches are confronted with such testimony. Theologians should be reminded of such suffering before they stand up to deliver lectures on pristine ecclesiology. The reality of what has happened across the globe must indent to the very core of our self-understanding.

Paraphrasing one of the victims, it is clear that Jesus loved children and that children loved him and were safe with him. That this has not been true and still is not universally true in our churches – this is a scandal we cannot stop talking about. The voices of the victims are voices we cannot stop listening to.

7.
There is much to fault in this movie. It is rampantly anti-Catholic. Yet before I list the ways in which the movie strays from truth in pursuit of an agenda, let me make an apology for anti-Catholicism.

Remember that I write this as a committed ecumenist, who studies day by day in a Catholic seminary, loves (in a complicated way) the Catholic church and longs to see it flourish. I offer an apology for this film’s anti-Catholicism because I am pro-Catholic.

The reason I make this seemingly paradoxical claim is that this film’s strong bias and clear agenda reveals a further fact we cannot forget: there is good reason to despise the church.

Jesus said that the world will hate his followers and spit at them and persecute them. It is a logical fallacy to believe that if you are hated, spat at or persecuted, you must therefore be following Jesus closely. You could be hated, spat at and persecuted because you are committing horrendous crimes.

It is indisputable that the Catholic church has been home to such horrendous crimes. It appears, with the best of intentions towards the church, that it has sheltered horrendous criminality. If the victims hate the perpetrators, it is not pastorally or theologically true to simply call on them to forgive and forget, to put it behind them.

Christ calls those who follow him to forgive those who sin against them. That applies to those who are the victims of sex abuse. But reciting that doctrinal truth doesn’t produce psychological reality. That process of forgiveness, if it is to be authentic, is subterranean, below the surface of things, in the very heart of the soul. Even if a victim dedicates their spiritual life towards it, that process of forgiveness might still be firmly in the territory of hate even to their dying day.

And if a wonder of God is displayed, and a victim can forgive, the perpetrator remains a recipient of GRACE. They have no right to claim forgiveness. They can only expect to receive hate. The gracious economy of the Kingdom can not be perverted into a transactional procedure.

So when we encounter hatred in the face of victims or from those who advocate for victims, this is the way it is! This is how things are! The church will be hated because the church did not do what it is in the essence of the church to do – protect children.

So do not despise and neglect and ignore the voices that you can categorise as having an agenda against you and your ecclesial tradition. Hear them! Hear the Spirit’s call in them! As Barth said:

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.

It is perfectly in keeping with the character of the God we worship that he would bring us the truth we need for this day out of the mouth of those who can be cast as our enemies. This film is anti-Catholic. That is all the more reason to watch it.

8.
Having made my apology for the film’s anti-Catholicism, I now make my defence of Catholicism.

This film’s anti-Catholic bias obscures its own intentions. It wants justice for the victims. It becomes unjust in its pursuit of that justice. It claims a vast conspiracy. Such a narrative is digestible to contemporary culture and is re-tellable in courts so as to win judgements. But there is no evidence of a vast conspiracy that implicates Pope Benedict XVI. The true story is more complicated and less satisfying and it is utterly hidden from the viewer.

Instead we have old tricks, trotted out with predictable regularity. One would get the impression, watching this, that Ratzinger was promoted from obscurity when John Paul II made him the head of the CDF. That he was bishop of one of the most important seats in Germany, a theological superstar and a key mover at Vatican II – as well as a long standing friend of the Polish Pope – all this is hidden. Instead we get gruesome images of the Inquisition and the utterly irrelevant fact that the modern day CDF can be traced back to the Inquisition. The history of the Inquisition is not interrogated at all, it is just assumed we know how bad those lads were.

Such nods, winks and allusions to common but completely unfounded popular anti-Catholic prejudice makes up the majority of the case against “the Vatican” in this film.

In other words, when it takes its eye off the victims and steps into the role of prosecutor, it gets badly lost.

Errors that look malicious abound. Benedict gave a famous interview on an airplane a few years ago where he discussed the child abuse scandals, particularly here in Ireland. He is shown commenting, in obvious distress, on his confusion about how priests could do such things. The commentator in the movie, Robert Mickens, points out that the Pope’s first thought was the office of priesthood, not the victim. His thoughts on priesthood may have been chronologically first, but a few seconds later his thoughts move on and he clearly states himself what takes logical first place. The Pope said on that airplane, into a microphone, in front of cameras, “Our first priority must be the victims.” The movie even shows this clip. But the narrative is out of whack. Sense is not conveyed. Truth is distorted.

Only in 2001 did the CDF become involved directly in child abuse allegations and that was at the request of Ratzinger. Since then, and through his papacy, he had read every allegation personally. A former Canon lawyer says at one point in the movie, “Cardinal Ratzinger is the most knowledgeable person in the world on the abuse of minors.” Surely this is wonderful! Things are changing! The Pope takes this seriously!

Instead, the movie conveys this fact as if it is sinister.

Only in 2001 did the CDF become involved directly in child abuse allegations and yet the movie obscures that fact as well. The film talks constantly of “the Vatican”. If a documentary on American politics spoke all the time of “the American government” without paying attention to the three distinct branches and the competing interest groups within those branches, it would be considered blatantly untrustworthy. That the Papacy is separate from the Curia – that the Curia is segmented into different offices – none of this is clear or evident because to describe such complexity undoes the conviction of the argument.

Mick Peelo, a well known Irish religious journalist claims at one point that “We [the Irish] were 95% practising Catholics.” This sentence is such an exaggeration that I wonder how anyone who wasn’t just talking off the top of their heads after a few pints could ever make it. If such spin stays in, what is being kept out? This film gets sloppy when it lets its bias show.

9.
And this is all the more reason why Christians – the kind of passionate, dogmatic, conservative Christians who get excited about creeds and liturgy or evangelism and Spiritual gifts – Christians should be making films like this.

A thought experiment: If the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was implicated in the Northern Irish conflict more deeply than we could ever have thought and a Catholic and Anglican film-making team came along and put a spotlight on it, would they be:

  1. Sectarian profiteers out to boost their particular brand of Christianity.
  2. Foolish forgers of disunity.
  3. My brothers and sisters in Christ who take sin seriously and know it is always liberating to have our sin exposed.

When we refrain from calling out such rotten violence hiding under the pretence of holiness we are not serving unity, we are not living in the values of the Kingdom! In fact, we’re living as if God is not sovereign and it is our responsibility to make ourselves clean.

Jeremiah’s words are true for us when we instinctively withdraw from casting light on church corruption lest we create a fuss:

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace

Let us dress these wounds seriously! The only way to bring health to our churches is to address the toxicity in the body! The shame of this film is not that it is aggressively opposed to the church in its bias. It is that it had to be made by people who were not in the church.

10.
I have an internet-friend who is one of the finest writers I have ever read. How cool is that? Her name is D.L. Mayfield. I’ve never met her and probably never will. But when she puts words into paragraphs, ideas move around and truth is revealed.

Yesterday she wrote about the emerging child abuse scandal in a prominent American Reformed evangelical movement called Sovereign Grace Ministries. She wrote:

Now is the time to be honest about the potential for abuse, even in our sacred institutions. Now, more than ever, is the time to recognize traumas encountered by so many within our world and communities, to seek out reconciliation that is holistic and justice-oriented, to give weight to the voices of the vulnerable that currently aren’t being heard.
Otherwise, we are living in a very false peace—one that will eventually be uncovered as darkness.

This problem is not a “Catholic” problem. This problem will express itself wherever power is not made accountable. This problem will not be fixed by protocols and procedures (although they are essential). This problem demands that average, everyday members of churches stand up and demand investigations whenever accusations are made.

False accusations are made. Actually, they are depressingly common. My favourite priest growing up was removed from ministry for years under a groundless accusation. But I would rather my name tarnished, and my ministry obstructed, than have a culture spread where abuse can happen.

This is our problem. Watching this movie will annoy you because of its excesses, but it will bring you into contact with victims telling their story. That is hard to hear. This is why you should watch it.

Your Correspondent, Apologises for verbosity

One Line Review: This Must Be The Place

While I am more than inclined to love movies set in Dublin (especially featuring shots on a street my friend used to live on), this quiet and unusual film about guilt and regret and trauma comes alive when David Byrne (is there anything he wouldn’t make come alive?) begins to sing and from there it gets very interesting indeed.

I think Transfarmer's house is the last one on the right, but I might be wrong

Your Correspondent, Gratitude is the most beautiful thing of all.

Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder

* While neither of these movies are plot-driven, here be spoilers below. *

Both Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder are movies you are meant to be mildly embarrassed to love. The reason is that both of them are drenched in something like the uncoolness of fairy tales. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visual feast that has alligators in it. Therefore it is compared to Terence Malick movies. To The Wonder is a Terence Malick movie and as such is a visual feast. In this one, at least, there is no alligator.

Fairy tales aren’t cool. We’re meant to think movies about marriages breaking up and teachers being addicted to heroin are cool cos those things are real. Priests suffering the dark night of the soul and girls making sense of the universe? What is more real than that? But it is a “visual feast”, so we are primed for sentimentality.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the little girl, Hushpuppy, is pursued throughout by vast mythical prehistoric creates called aurochs. Their oncoming presence casts a shadow over everything that happens to her.

Beast of the Southern Wild

In To The Wonder, a priest, Fr. Quintana, is pursued relentlessly by doubts about his vocation. The retreating presence of God casts a shadow over everything that he does.

To The Wonder

These movies are easily discarded as fripperies for the pseudo-intellectual. Maybe they are. Neither movie is without fault. But watching them together is illuminating.

As I have said, both are kinds of fairytales so they are kind of uncool. Both of them share a picture of Creation as a Cosmos. Hushpuppy believes that everything is connected. The characters in To The Wonder are striving to make any sort of a connection – with themselves, with each other, with God. But the Cosmos-view of the two movies is subtly, if significantly different. Both perceive some kind of integral, holistic sense to the universe. Neither movie leaves us under the impression that matter is all there is and matter is all that matters. But To The Wonder, as with all Malick movies, has more hope.

Hushpuppy’s Cosmos-perspectice is that: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

In Malick’s movies no one thinks this. All the pieces can be out of whack and the “Love that loves us” will still make things right. I wanted To The Wonder to end differently. I wanted Neil to be changed by his friendship with Fr. Quintana so much that he and Marina could be happy. I am spoiling nothing by saying that doesn’t happen. But to close the story off like that is too neat and too easy. Instead, Neil ends happy, but elsewhere. Because all the small busted pieces won’t bust the entire universe.

Which is not to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a stupid movie. It isn’t! It is beautiful and funny and in its own way, true. When Hushpuppy’s moment finally comes and she says to her fears, “You’re my friend, kind of” something lovely is depicted in a lovely way that redoubles the loveliness. Those haunting fears that chase us down, they spur us on.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a better reviewed movie. Maybe that is because movie critics are better able to judge a film than I can. Or maybe in retrospect, the movies Malick has made will continue to attract careful watchers, who when they listen, will find something unique. Beasts of the Southern Wild is unashamedly and impressively a movie that shares the philosophy of a six year old girl. But our philosophies mature. They go past the silliness of Marina’s Italian friend Anna who sees nothing of value in the small Oklahoma town they find themselves in.

And there, To The Wonder, directed by a man who translated Heidegger, is shown to be a deeper (not necessarily better or more enjoyable) (and maybe this is a worthless prize to win when talking about films anyway) movie. Hushpuppy and Wink look over at industrial New Orleans and see ugliness. They refrain from using tools when they can. Civilization itself is unvcivilized.

But when the Parisian Marina arrives in Smalltown USA, she is taken by it. The movie starts on the sophisticated streets of old Europe but it plays out on the plains which she declares “honest”. The humdrum of human settlement, domestication, civilization is a part of the “wonder”, not something that mars it. This reverence for nature in the midst of suburbia survives even as her marriage doesn’t.

The stark dichotomies between the “innocent wilderness” and the “fishtank without water” of urbanity in Beasts of the Southern Wild makes the philosophical perspective easier to digest. This is an irony. Because the movie that is at peace with the supermarket “Everything is so clean!” is the movie that gets closer down to the raw marrow of reality.

Of course, I haven’t eaten a real meal in three days due to the Winter Vomiting Bug so I could just be full of crap.

Your Correspondent, His obese toddler did his stepfather’s make-over.

Janauary Stations

In January I spent a great, big chunk of my waking hours in the new NUI Maynooth library, studying for exams, writing sermons and trying to get my ideas for a PhD together into a proposal that wouldn’t read like the insane ramblings of a deluded serial killer who intends to murder three victims called “CaPiTaLiSm” “MaRkEtS” and “GlObAl1zAt1On”.

Here’s a picture of that new library, taken by my friend Eoin O’Mahony, with his mobile phone, as he casually walked by looking like the late-blossoming hipster that he is (I assume that is how it happened). It is especially accurate because the weather has been that dismally depressing all freaking month:
NUI Maynooth Library

I thought this year that I might copy Jason Goroncy and write a summation of all the lovely things I had time to read and watch and hear over the past month. So here goes:

Reading

    Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.
    In the Poorer Quarters by Aidan Mathews.
    Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters.
    A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.
    Esio Trot by Roald Dahl.

Watching

    Ruby Sparks – 4 stars
    Groundhog Day – 5 stars
    The Imposter – 5 stars
    Jack Reacher – 3 stars
    The Sound of My Voice – 4 stars
    The Pact – 3 stars
    The Life of Pi – 3 stars
    Chinatown – 3 stars
    The Jerk – 3 stars
    The Girl Who Played With Fire – 3 stars
    The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest – 3 stars
    Django Unchained – 1 star
    Zero Dark Thirty – 4 stars

Listening

    Stars – Heart
    Gungor – Creation Liturgy and Ghosts Upon The Earth
    Best ofs for 2012 compiled by my friends.

Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Whilst Reading ‘A Hologram For A King’

Dave Eggers is a remarkably gifted American novelist who seems to me to get more attention than love from his readers. Kathryn Bigelow is a remarkably gifted American film director who seems to me to get more attention than love from her viewers. This weekend I read Eggers’ A Hologram For A King and watched Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and the contrast they provided on how America views the Middle East was fascinating.

Eggers’ novel is a damn fine book. It is touching and true. Alan is a middle-aged American sales executive, plagued by doubts about his past and the way his marriage fell apart and the role he played in the deconstruction of American manufacturing. He is concerned about the future because he can’t provide for his daughter’s college fees and he has a growth on his spine. He is in Saudi Arabia, pitching impressive technology on behalf of a multinational company who is seeking an exclusive IT contract for a new city being built by the King.

Things do not go as planned.

But in the meanwhile, we get a look under the skin of Saudi society and Eggers continues with one of his dominant persistent themes: our shared common humanity. Alan makes friends with his driver Yousef, a hilariously high-spirited young man and their friendship develops in a fascianting way. Through Yousef we get a picture of Saudi society that is uncompromising without being patronising. Alan bonds with a Dutch consultant called Hanne; she is more experienced in the ways of being rootless than Alan is, just as Europe has longer had to struggle with not being the centre of the world for that bit longer than the US. Finally, Alan is befriended by his Saudi doctor. In all of this, Eggers never compresses us down into depression over the pervasive malaise of Alan’s impotency however. He is hopeless, unable to desire and ultimately, he is at the beck and call of a monarch. But he keeps going on.

Alan is America, defeated before its end.

And this is a very good novel.

Bigelow’s movie is critically adored. It is distant and fantastical. Maya, played by the inordinately beautiful Jessica Chastain is our focus. We do not know what possesses her to pursue Bin Laden so relentlessly. We do not know anything about her, but that she is in her early thirties, she swears, she owns a wig and she was recruited by the CIA out of high-school. If the goal of this cipher is to hammer home to us how identity-destroying secret service can be, the point is lost. Instead, what I understood from the under-developed lead character is that the War on Terror is fought by nihilists who are utterly perplexed by the motives of their enemies because their own motives are hidden from them.

The torture scenes in this movie have been the topic of much discussion. They are simultaneously more shocking than I imagined and more fantastical. They are grotesquely explicit, which ultimately is less effective than a sideways glance. The photos from Abu Ghraib, caught still, without context, remain more affecting than any of the up close depictions of water-boarding you are confronted with from the beginning in this movie. They are fantastical because they suggest that people can hold out under torture.

They can’t.

That is why America tortures people.

The movie suggests that under Obama, torture is finished. This is the kind of fantasy that will cast a very poor light on Bigelow in fifty years time.

The film ends with a final half hour where the screen goes green and amazing super-soldiers in secret helicopters invade Pakistan, break into a house, kill many people and take the body of Bin Laden and a bunch of hard-drives back to Afghanistan.

In Zero Dark Thirty, it is not only the hero that we fail to get to know. The enemy is just assumed. He is bearded and Arab. Any sense that this war is being fought in a context of actual human society with history and geography and religion and culture at play is firmly shoved off into the background. The Irish Times movie critic called this film strangely apolitical, which is a bit like saying that Crime and Punishment isn’t about Christianity because no one goes to Mass. The whole of Zero Dark Thirty is politics. This is revealed by the fact that no one ever speaks of the thing that is being fought. America’s rightness is assumed. Whatever excesses may have occurred in “enhanced interrogation techniques” was the end result of the reality of frontline combat. Sitting behind a desk in the homeland, it might be easy to cry foul, but out there in the desert, we are reassurred that the practice was conducted by decent men with doctorates.

If the twentieth century teaches us anything, it must be that intellectualism and sadism are not distinct groups.

This movie is being praised for its moral ambiguity. Them there are fancy words for moral confusion. It would have been a stellar film if it had the discipline to focus on character, as The Hurt Locker did. Instead, it fueled my fury, with pointless exploitation at the beginning and turgid murder at the end.

When compared against Eggers’ novel, what lingers with me is how difficult it is to say anything meaningful, let along good and true and beautiful, when we take our eyes off the particular instantiations of human life we call characters and instead try to have an abstract conversation about concepts like “torture” or “terror” or “war”. Eggers’ novel is true and bold and touching. Bigelow’s movie is false and bold and distancing. Two American visions of the Middle East, but only one of these visions is humanistic. The other underwrites yet more more constant war.

Makoto Fujimura has said that “We need to redefine art and its effectiveness by how it helps us to love one another sacrificially”. If we take that as a theological proposition to experiment with, I encourage you to give Eggers a look before Bigelow.

Your Correspondent, Found and then destroyed Atlantis

2 Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed and Ruby Sparks

At the end of the year, Wife-Unit and I sat down to watch some movies. These two, the time-travelling tale Safety Not Guaranteed and the philosophical rom-com Ruby Sparks, were surprisingly delightful.

Both of these films share traits that make them so charming – brilliant central performances, lovely, measured scripts and a kind of humble set of intentions that means that both of them under-promise and over-deliver. Also, lead actors wrote and produced the movies.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, a jaded journalist and his two interns go to investigate an ad in the newspaper searching for people to accompany the advertiser on a journey back in time. Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation becomes the centre of the plot as her outsider character identifies with and bonds with the outsider character who thinks he can travel through time.

Looper was one of the best films of the year and was very serious and very expensive and very good. It was about time travel. Safety Not Guaranteed is not very serious and not awfully expensive but it is also very good. It is actually about marriage.

I think.

Ruby Sparks is about a halting author wrestling with the task of following up his critically adored and hugely successful debut. He has no real friends and no romantic interests. A girl comes to him in his dreams. He starts to write about her. Then she comes to him in reality. And the plot spins away from there into very rewarding territory. It is directed by the folks behind Little Miss Sunshine, so it is surprising it didn’t get a bigger play in the cineplexes.

The author of the screenplay, Zoe Kazan, plays the ideal woman of the author’s dreams. She is Ruby Sparks and she is the definitive skewering of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that has become epidemic in American movies since Natalie Portman’s turn in Garden State. The scene where they swim at nighttime ought to be lethal to that 500 Days Of Summer style nonsense.

So you can see already, I suspect, the philosophical tangents that spring out of this plot. The ideal is not real and therefore the real is not ideal. The woman is the subject of the man’s devotion but not his attention. An other’s personhood, regardless of how intimate you become with them, remains incommensurable. The great thing about Ruby Sparks is that these ideas are hinted at as the story develops. The ideas don’t stall the story. We don’t feel lectured to or as if Kazan is taking an opportunity to show off. There is a story to tell about how bad we are at relationships, especially the ones we most dearly value. It is really very fine.

Perhaps I was especially dull the night we watched it, but like Safety Not Guaranteed, the ending had a lovely surprise factor. The final scenes in both movies were glee-inducing. You should track them down.

One of the lovely gifts Wife-Unit got me recently was The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. In one of the chapters, she has a paragraph that was an apposite accompaniment to Ruby Sparks:

That no human maker can create a self-conscious being, we have already seen; and seen also that he is always urged by an inward hankering to do so, finding approximate satisfactions for this desire in procreation, in such relations as those of a playwright with his actors, and in the creation of imaginary characters. In all these relations, he is conscious of the same paradoxical need – namely, the complete independence of the creature combined with its willing co-operation in his purpose in conformity with the law of its nature. In this insistent need he sees the image of the perfect relation of Creator and creature, and the perfect reconciliation of divine predestination with free created will.

– Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, p. 111.

Your Correspondent, Is all for killing your idols

2012: A Year In Review

As I come to the end of 2012, I feel a lot like this guy:
Falling bear

But here are the best things I listened to, read and watched.

Music
For the last number of Christmases my friends have operated a minor little tradition where we each compile an album of the best music we’ve discovered in the previous year and share them around:

    1. The music can be from any era, but it has to be new to you this year.
    2. The collection of songs can’t be longer than 80 minutes.
    3. The collection of songs can’t take up more than 150mb of data.
    4. There are four rules.

As I put my best of album together each year, I listen to the old ones. Each of them is definitively stamped with a certain family resemblance. My albums are never brief – they always push up against the 80th minute. My albums are full of new music, typically single songs representative of highly rated albums with one or two stand out records honoured by a double appearance. They tend to start loud and finish upbeat. They tend to mix genres almost as if I just threw a load of songs into winamp and randomised the order (which is indeed what I typically did).

If you knew me only by my best of you’d start getting worried after hearing the effort I put together at the end of 2012.

The songs come overwhelmingly from four artists – Craig Finn, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, Rodriguez and Brother Ali. And listening through, the songs are either all unbearably sad or their context is tragic. So there are songs about a father dying of cancer, a man depressed to the verge of suicide by failed relationships and a happy lovesong best known for serving as the backdrop to a sob-inducing film (You and Me from Blue Valentine).

Nobody ever taught me how to grow up and grow old and I have learned little by osmosis. I am years and years into training to be a pastor and still I am astonished by how poorly I know myself, nevermind others. Human beings are complicated. I know this from personal experience.

Listening to the music that has most lingered with me this year, I am tempted to say something has broken inside me. But maybe it is a delusion which has been shattered? Perhaps the real delusion is to think that one’s patterns of consumption add up to anything at all, for in the world we live in, even music is a product marketed at us by minds more canny than ours. But nonetheless, this year where I was 30 and then turned 31 has been a bruiser. And it follows on from a couple of years marked by too many visits to hospitals and graves and dark places of doubt and rootlessness and loneliness.

2012 isn’t a year I’ll remember for amazing journeys to distant shores or pulsating parties that then languidly slide into the next day. It is the year my wife and I made a baby and then it died. It is the year I finished my work and found that not having a job (even when it is replaced by the absurd luxury of being a fulltime student) is immensely hard. It is yet another year littered with the little lonelinesses that come as a result of this strange vocation – to be a church pastor in an age when churches are meant to go quietly into the good night of yesteryear.

And in the fraught tension that has marked too many of my nights this year, the stand out album has undoubtedly been Dictionary Crimes by Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. You probably have never heard of Ronan Hession, who writes songs as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. But his three albums are treasures that have guided me through the last ten years. His first album was the soundtrack to me finishing my degree in computer science. His second album was in the background as I learned the ropes working in the church. And with Dictionary Crimes there are ten songs that mark the currents of grown up life: mortality and family and disappointment and hope. It is perfect. I heartily recommend it.

Words
It is a basic conviction of mine that life is hard. In the last year, the books I have most enjoyed have spoken of this. Aidan Mathews, the Irish Catholic poet, novelist, playwright and broadcaster I have enjoyed so deeply this year put it well for me when he wrote:

We are ordained by our troubles and our tragedies, not by college diplomas.

Daniel Bell in his breathtaking work “Liberation Theology After The End of History” and William Cavanaugh’s heartbreaking work “Torture and Eucharist” told different sides of a story that I maintain is the story of all reality – life is hard in a large part because our lives are held captive by forces that aren’t human. The only path to liberation is the sacrificial love of God. For Bell, God makes it possible for us to forgive and forgiveness is a currency that renders those forces bankrupt. And for Cavanaugh, Christian worship makes it possible for us to commune with God which is the only way we can have communion with each other.

Whatever else I can say at the end of 2012, the prospect of being able to follow in the paths that men like this have tread before me is one that brings me hope. Whatever else has come my way, the conviction that the unnoticed guerrilla activity of preaching remains among the most important and noble things humans get to do is unchanged. Having absorbed Torture and Eucharist, I want more fiercely than ever for my life to embody the battle between Mammon and the Word.

Among oh-so-many, my favourite blogs of the year remain Declan Kelly’s Charismata, Invisible Foreigner, Vinoth Ramachandra’s musings from Sri Lanka and Jason Goroncy’s peerless Per Crucem Ad Lucem.

It has few words, but the blog Everyday I’m Pastoring is a new entry in my “Unmissable” folder in Google Reader, as did DL Mayfield. Wife-unit wrote some fabulous stuff too, and shared tasty food. The random funniness of Julia Segal and the occasional hilarity of the Worst Things For Sale also deserve a mention, as does the consistently touching Slaughterhouse 90210.

Films & TV
My computer is slowly dying. And in one of the crashes I lost my records of all the movies I have seen in the last six years. That is annoying.

So I work purely from memory when I say that the film I most enjoyed was Argo. It was deadly. A great yarn, told well, that reflects out on the world. Even the boring final ten minutes didn’t bruise the delight I felt at the running gag of “Argo fuck yourself!”, a joke crafted by God to be especially hilarious to a Dublin accent.

Wife-unit and I like to watch old movies and one that stuck with me, even through the crashing computer and lost notes is Who’s Afraid Of Viriginia Woolf? That is a gem of a film.

Since we’re fragile types, we haven’t got around to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad yet and we fall asleep every time we watch Downton Abbey so the best telly we watched is the entire 7-Up series, which followed a dozen children from the 1960s through until today. It was bleddin’ wonderful. The quirks and witticisms of the seven year olds back in black and white have become slogans and catchphrases in our own home. Neil Hughes and Tony Walker and the rest of the gang featured over half a century were the absolute highlight of our televisual year.

That and the mad one from Fair City.

Your Correspondent, Waiting for your supportive eye-rolls