Homesick for Oakbrook

In the past six weeks I’ve seen two exceptional low-budget, independent films. Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, it’s unlikely that either will be showing at your local Cineplex. I’m sure they will be available soon enough on Netflix, Amazon Prime or On Demand. This is an okay way to see these films, but it’s not optimum. Both deserve to be seen with an audience, in the intimacy of a theatre, cell-phones and other electronic devices turned off and put away for the duration of the screening.

Each film stars an actor that I represented when I was a talent manager during the nineteen eighties. I have great affection for these two artists. I worked with them both when they were in their early thirties and their careers were just beginning to take off.  Now, three decades later they are in their early sixties and are currently doing their best work in years—maybe career best.

As I watched these movies, I was filled with a longing that I haven’t felt as strongly in some time. I didn’t long to be back into show business; I longed to be back in Oakbrook, IL at a CMED reunion so I could introduce these two marvelous films to my friends, colleagues and students, my CMED family.

If anyone has any ideas for another platform for doing film weekends, I am wide-open to suggestions.

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Best 2016 Movies Part 2: Round-up

Hidden Figures & Fences

hiddenfiguresThe year brought a jackpot of outstanding films about people of color. In addition to Midnight, Loving and Queen of Katwe, there are Hidden Figures and Fences.

Don’t miss Hidden Figures! It is an old-fashioned (in the best sense) movie that will have you on your feet and cheering at the end. Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) uses a tried and true formula, one that the film’s distributor 20th Century Fox has used countless times since the 1930s: take three ambitious and talented women and intercut their stories as they pursue success in a particularly macho man’s world—NASA in the 1960’s. All three women are working mothers, two of them are married; one is a widow. In their fight for opportunities commensurate with their abilities, the three heroines don’t just have to battle sexism, but racism as well. The performances of the three leading women, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer/musician Janelle Monae (also in Moonlight) are righteous, infectious and altogether jubilant. They are reluctantly supported by gum-chewing NASA program director, Kevin Costner. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are terrific as the heroines’ condescending antagonists and Mahershala Ali (also in Moonlight) is fine (as in “He’s So Fine”) as the persistent suitor of reluctant widow, Henson.

More about Hidden Figures

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Best Movies of 2016 Part 1

So often the best works of art, the most grace-filled and transcendent, are nearly impossible to describe in such a way that more than handful of people will be drawn to see them. Walter Kerr, the theatre critic for the N. Y. Times, wrote that a “true work of art is suitable for contemplation;” that is, you can see it, read it or listen to it again and again and it remains timeless, always able to hold a mirror your soul.

None of the films on my list are studio blockbusters; none of them are sequels; none of the stars (except, perhaps, Tom Hanks) guarantee ticket sales. All are worthy of repeated viewings; all are suitable for contemplation; none more so Silence.

Silence

silence2016There is a story told about the great Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler. Standing in the back of the concert hall during the premiere of one of his last works, Mahler is purported to have said, “I wish I could be alive in 50 years when the audiences will have learned to hear my music.”

The works of great artists are not simply entertaining; they are challenge the audience to and require its full engagement.

Visual and aural works that we regard today as masterpieces—the Impressionist painters, for example were, as often as not, ridiculed and dismissed by a majority of critics and viewers alike when they were first introduced.

Stephen Sondheim (now regarded, according to NY Times critic emeritus, Frank Rich, “as the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American theatre”) received praise for his intricate and witty lyrics during the early years of his career while, at the same time, his music was often dismissed as non-melodic and “un-hummable”.  As with Mahler, it took quite a while for audiences to be able to hear the beauty and variety in his musical scores.

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The Best of Movies 2014 – Part 1

When I began to reflect on the movies I’ve seen over the past year, I was surprised to discover that nearly all of them dealt with themes of Passion, the mystery of Vocation and Calling, Devotion and Duty—subjects that come up nearly every day in the conversations about discernment that I have as a spiritual director with my directees.


SELMA: Black Lives Matter

selmaIf you see only one film this year, make it Selma – a magnificent, conscience-challenging work, a worthy companion to last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. Ignatian prayer and contemplative practice, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, instructs meditators to place themselves in the scriptural passage with Jesus, just as if we were actually present at the event. Selma accomplishes just this placing viewers in the events rather than allowing us to be observers. The buffer of history that gave viewers some distance in 12 Years a Slave is not available here. Television coverage from Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY, as well as ongoing coverage of efforts to deny voter registration to minorities in many states, make the historic march from Selma to Montgomery seem like it happened yesterday rather than 50 years ago. Anchored by David Oyelowo’s galvanizing portrayal of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King and directed by Ava DuVernay, it is a searing call to take action and an indictment against the injustices that continue to shame our nation. My African-American friends have repeatedly and patiently reminded me I can’t understand what it is like to live in a Black or Brown skin. Bearing helpless witness and burning with rage as Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey in a wonderful cameo) maintains her dignity and resolve despite as she is repeatedly denied the right to register to vote may be as close as I ever come to understanding.

Check this link to read an excellent interview with the actor David Oyelowo about the impact that playing Dr. King on his own faith.

Charlie Rose’s interview with director Ava DuVernay is equally interesting.


IDA: In the Shadow of the Holocaust

IdaThe most profound and haunting film I saw this year was Ida by Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski. Photographed in black and white, the images are austere and beautiful. The editing is designed to make us linger contemplatively over each scene, digesting it from the points of view of each of the main characters. Ida, a young postulate nun on the threshold of taking vows discovers she is, in fact, Jewish and one of only two members of her family to survive the Holocaust. Ida takes a leave from the convent to join her embittered aunt in a search for the truth about the death of their other family members. The sheltered Ida is introduced to a world of which she has no experience—a world that includes romance and sex, cowardice, heroism, disillusionment, despair and death. The camera stays on her mostly silent response to these events and as Ida discerns whether to return to the convent or stay in the world, the film superbly illustrates the grace and mystery of vocation.


CALVARY: The Sins of the Fathers

Calvalry_filmThe great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (probably best-known to American audiences for his portrayal of Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies) gives one of the best performances of the year as Father James, a priest in a seaside Irish village. The film opens in a confessional where Father James (a widower with an adult daughter who came late to the priesthood) is told under the seal of confession that, although he is personally innocent, that he will be murdered in seven days, as retribution for the unprosecuted sexual crimes committed against children by pedophile priests and covered up by church hierarchy.

The film follows Father James through each of the seven days as he encounters several of the villagers he ministers to and wonders along with the audience which of them passed sentence on him in the confessional. He wonders if he is actually of any use to them, wrestles with the temptation to flee and questions the responsibilities of his vocation—particularly compassion, forgiveness and faith in God, as the seventh day grows closer. The film skilfully balances suspense with characteristic Irish black humor and is populated by a wonderful supporting cast led by Chris O’Dowd (St. Vincent and Bridesmaids) and others recognizable from Masterpiece Theatre, Game of Thrones, etc.

Calvary is now available on demand through many cable companies and is also available on Amazon Prime.


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The Virtue and Vocation of Civility

Budapest-liftI enjoyed this movie when I saw it last summer but it didn’t stay with me like some of director Wes Anderson’s other films, particularly The Darjeeling Limited. Then, about a week ago I happened to catch the last 10 minutes of it while waiting for another program to begin on HBO.

In one of the final scenes a journalist asks the narrator, Mr. Moustafa about his relationship with the film’s hero, M. Gustave. Moustafa replies, “There are still faint glimpses of civilization in this barbaric slaughter house that was once known as humanity. He was one of them. . . You see, we shared a vocation. He certainly sustained the illusion with marvelous grace.” I had not caught the reference to vocation when I saw the film in the theatre. It intrigued me enough to watch the movie again on HBO. Seeing the film through the lens of shared vocation completely re-framed it for me.

M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes (another Harry Potter alumnus Voldemort) is the manager of an elegant hotel in pre-war Eastern Europe whose life is dedicated to service, hospitality, good manners and civility.

Hospitality is thought to be the core virtue of all of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Genesis 18 begins with a description of Abraham and Sarah’s warm hospitality, their welcoming of strangers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, gorgeously designed and photographed, is both an elegy for the lost virtues of hospitality and civility and a moving plea for their return. This film, like Birdman which I’ll discuss in a later blog, is a fable and is photographed more like a fairy-tale than Into the Woods.


In upcoming blogs, I plan to write next about Birdman, Mr, Turner, Whiplash and Chef; Boyhood, Saint Vincent and Force Majeure (Turist), The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything: The Lunchbox and Words and Pictures; Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler; Pride and Into the Woods.

A Few of My Favorite Things (Gift Guide)

This time of year I like to be even more mindful that usual of all of the blessings in my life. And I am blessed with extraordinary friends. Some of these friends bless me doubly and triply because they are also my teachers. Each has a body of inspiring and provocative work and I’d like to share some of my favorites with you.

All of these would make great holiday gifts for others or you may hint to others you would like some of these for yourself.

CAROLINE MYSS

My wonderful friend, teacher and author, Caroline Myss has written many wonderful books but I especially love her recordings. Unless you’ve been at some of Caroline’s recording sessions, you may not know that she doesn’t read from a text. Although she prepares in SpiritualMadnessadvance, she speaks ex tempore. This gives immediacy and intimacy to the recordings that puts her right in the room with me.

I first discovered Caroline and her work when I was diagnosed with cancer and came across her recording of “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can.” The wisdom in that recording has guided me through 17 years of cancer treatments.

My personal favorite of all of Caroline’s recordings is “Spiritual Madness.” I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to it, but I always find something new with every listening.

A wonderful companion to “Spiritual Madness” is the lesser known “Your Primal Nature.” It’s fascinating.

All of these are available at www.SoundsTrue.com and Amazon/Audible

MARK MATOUSEK

wyfd_lg1I’ve known Mark Matousek since he was sixteen years old and was around him a great deal until he went away to school. He chronicles this part of his life in “Sex, Death, Enlightenment” one of the finest spiritual memoirs I’ve ever read. The follow-up memoir, “The Boy He Left Behind,” avoids the sophomore slump of many writers, and is, if anything, even richer than the first book. I have a particular bias toward his book, “When You’re Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living,” because I’m interviewed in it and that the interview put me in the company of Joan Didion, David Steindl-Rast, Dr. Rachel Remen and Bill McKibben.

Mark is also an exceptional teacher. He regularly offers a six-week on-line course called “Writing As a Spiritual Practice” and he’s just released a seven-part audio course called “What’s Your Story.” To find out more about Mark and his work visit him at www.markmatousek.com

WILKIE AU

EnduringHeartWilkie Au is a spiritual director’s spiritual director. I can say this with certainty because I have been blessed to have Wilkie as my spiritual director for over fifteen years. Alone, and with his wife, Jungian analyst and spiritual director, Noreen Cannon Au, Wilkie has written a quintet of invaluable spiritual guides, each of which focuses on a specific quality of developing a richer spiritual life and practice. If you are unfamiliar with their work, the two books I most recommend are “The Enduring Heart: Spirituality for the Long Haul” and “The Grateful Heart.” The former is a reassuring reminder that the essence of spiritual life is, like marriage, relationship. The latter is an activist’s handbook for living a life rooted in and committed to gratitude. For more information visit: http://wilkieandnoreenau.com/

ELLEN GUNTER

Earth-Calling-book-coverEllen Gunter is a woman on fire. She’s a prophet and gadfly. Her book, “Earth Calling” is an impassioned education and wake-up call about the multiple environmental crises that threaten the planet. What sets her book apart is that on every page you are reminded how much Ellen loves the earth. This book isn’t just good science, it’s a love letter. The book is available on Amazon.

RICHARD ROHR

Father Richard Rohr, OFM, is so prolific, it’s hard to settle on just a few recommendations. If you are unfamiliar with his work his three volumes of daily meditations—excerpts drawn from his books, articles, sermons and workshops—are like mini-anthologies which are wonderful in YesAndthemselves or may guide you toward one or another of his complete works. The three anthologies are “Radical Grace,” “Yes . . .And,” and “On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men.”

Among Father Richard’s audios, I particularly like “True Self, False Self” and “Great Themes of Paul” (Richard’s series on Paul provides compelling evidence that Paul is a great mystic whose writings have  interpreted literally and damagingly. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I fell in love with the St. Paul revealed in these recordings. www.cac.org

JAMES FINLEY

James Finley was one of my teachers when I was  training to be a spiritual director and ContemplativeHeartbecame a colleague when we taught together at CMED.* I don’t know that there is any substitute for encountering James Finley in person. If you ever have the chance to spend a day, a weekend or a week in his company, sign up immediately. To find out about his retreat schedule check his website: http://contemplativeway.org/ . His book “Merton and the Palace of Nowhere” is a contemporary classic and essential reading for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of Thomas Merton’s teaching. James has collaborated on audio books and recorded seminars with both Caroline Myss and Richard Rohr. You can find them at either www.soundstrue.org or www.cac.org  Ally of them provide rich material for reflection and contemplation.

Happy Reading! Happy Listening!

Love,

Jim