Turner Classics – May’s Medication

Recently I’ve noticed a series of public services announcements promoting “device free dinners.”

They put me in mind of my double-bill for May’s Pick(s) of the month: “I Remember Mama” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The disappearing ritual of family dinner is central to both films.  All movie schedules are for Turner Classic Movies.

I REMEMBER MAMA: MAY 14, 8:00 EDT

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS: MAY 9, 6:00 PM EDT

Both films take place in the first decade of the 20th Century; before the United States became a player on the world’s stage. Both celebrate family life in an era before Sigmund Freud pathologized parents; before John Bradshaw pathologized childhood (contemporary pediatricians would have a field day diagnosing and prescribing for Tootie, the youngest child in Meet Me in St. Louis); before peculiar relatives were branded as dysfunctional instead of being lovingly accepted as eccentric; and before the phrase “family values” became a politically divisive cri de coeur.

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Turner Classic Movies – My Pharmacy of Choice

After spending the last two weeks writing about Appalachian poverty and the mediocrity of Paul Ryan, I was increasingly irritable and somewhat depressed.

So I’m turning this week to, what for me is, a fool-proof anti-depressant: Turner Classic Movies (link to schedule).  *To the best of my knowledge all of the recommended films are also available on DVD.

As I lost myself in the schedule of up-coming films my irritability and depression evaporated so I plan to use the last blog of each month to preview the best of TCM’s up-coming selections. There is such an abundance of great classic films each month that there isn’t enough room to write about them all—and I’ve seen them all, multiple times—really I have!  Several are easily worth an annual visit. In choosing the films for each month, I’ve chosen to go with the ones that may not be as well known.

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Making the Poor Visible

“Obamacare replacement hits Trump voters hard. Some of the biggest losers in Republican plan are in counties that supported him”

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 2017.

In the late 1990’s someone published a business motivational book called, “Who Stole My Cheese?” It remained on the NY Times best-seller list for almost five years.

My take away was that the difference between rats and people is this. There are five tunnels; only one of them has cheese. Both rats and people will, soon, after discovering the tunnel with cheese, return to it repeatedly. However, if the cheese is moved from, say tunnel two to tunnel five, the rats will return to tunnel two a few times until they realize there is no longer any cheese down that tunnel. Then, the rats will begin to explore the other four tunnels until they find cheese. Human beings, on the other hand will go down tunnel two until they starve because it is the right tunnel.

I was reminded of this business fable several times as I read the NY Times best-seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture and Crisis by J. D. Vance. The book, which many critics have hailed as a key to understanding the “Trump voter,” follows Vance’s life through a harrowing boyhood and adolescence amongst his hillbilly relatives to his enlistment in the United States Marine Corps to his undergraduate studies at the University of Ohio until, finally, his graduation from the Yale University School of Law. His story is more than a little bit Dickensian.

The book is well-written, reportorial and compelling. It more than likely fulfills the criteria of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” I recommend it highly; like James Baldwin’s books it, too, is a guide for pilgrims who are willing to make the journey to an unfamiliar world. I underlined so many passages that it might be easier to pick out the passages that weren’t underlined.

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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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Nostalgia Really Isn’t What it Used To Be

My cousin, Michael, and I don’t have occasion to interact very often—weddings and funerals, mostly.  I saw him last summer for the first time in several years at a mini family reunion that my sister hosted in honor of my 75th birthday and in honor of Michael’s older brother, Pat, an Oblate missionary priest in Africa, who was home on vacation.

Michael is a really good man. He and sister, Jane, have been, and continue to be, pillars of strength for their immediate and extended families throughout many heartbreaks, losses and tragedies that would have broken people of frailer character.

Michael and I are casual FB friends. His FB posts mostly tend toward nostalgic pictures from websites like the Good Old Days and Do You Remember the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? My sister Mary posts pictures from these websites, too. They are occasionally funny, but in no way give me any desire to re-live those decades. Or the 50’s either!

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Archetypal America

In honor of the release of  the Archetypal America workshop recordings, I offer this post on one of my favorite films, Stagecoach. The course recordings can be purchased as a digital download here: https://gum.co/archetypalamerica

“The main American theme, I think, is freedom. It’s about individual freedom in opposition to or in tension with collective freedom.”  -Ken Burns, documentary film maker, “The Civil War”

Throughout American history the archetypes which populate our myths and legends and capture our imagination are the Rebel, the Revolutionary, the Liberator, the Scout, the Pioneer, the Cowboy, the Explorer, even the Outlaw: all of them perpetually moving forward in pursuit of their idea of freedom, both on behalf of the common good and at the expense of it. While many of these archetypes appear from the very beginnings of our history, the conflict between the various notions of freedom—personal and collective—solidified in the American psyche in the years leading up to and following the Civil War. They continue to impact us and our ideas of ourselves to this day. Few films capture these American themes and tensions as well as John Ford’s masterpiece, Stagecoach.

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Stagecoach is high on my list of the 10 Best Movies of All Time. I’ve seen it at least 20 times, probably more. Without fail, something about it captures and holds with every viewing, so much so I save it on my DVR, along with Singin’ in the Rain and a few other films, so I can view them again whenever the mood strikes me.

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Life Beyond A Crisis: Uncovering the Secret Next Chapter of our Lives

When: Saturday March 7th, 2015, 9am-3:30pm
Where: The historic campus of All Saints Church
132 N. Euclid Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
Detail: People of all ages will learn about moving from crisis to re-birth, discovering a secret chapter to our lives, aligning with grace through chaos, navigating the unexpected, love and beauty at any age.
Fee: $58
Registration link

My first workshop of the year is sponsored by Stillpoint Center for Christian Spirituality and will be held at All Saints Church in Pasadena, one of the most beautiful venues in Southern California. I taught a workshop there last year about Pilgrimage using the film, The Way. We subsequently produced a self guided workshop based on that day long pilgrimage.

BEstI’m delighted to have been invited back for another workshop this year and I’ve chosen to focus on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Part of my inspiration for the course came from something a good friend said to me while we were having lunch about ten years ago. He was a few days shy of his 80th birthday and while we were sipping wine and waiting for our entrees to arrive he leaned in close to me and said, “You know the mid-life crisis? You have another one to look forward to.” I’ve never forgotten his remark and as I approach the half-way mark of my eighth decade, I’ve begun to watch for signs.

“When old words dies on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders. “
– Rabindranath Tagore

I believe that’s why the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been so popular with viewers—so unexpectedly popular, in fact, that a sequel is set to be released the first week in March. The film captures its main characters deep in the throes of this crisis. It’s most marked characteristic is the shocking revelation that their identities, the life narratives they’ve carefully crafted for themselves are way past their “sell-by” date and they find themselves confronted by the need to discover new meaning, new purpose for their lives.

I hope you will be able to join me. Please do share this information with your friends in the LA area or those who might want to escape the cold to enjoy some Southern California sunshine next month. There is even a Facebook Event created to make it easier to share with your friends.

When: Saturday March 7th, 2015, 9am-3:30pm
Where: The historic campus of All Saints Church
132 N. Euclid Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
Detail: People of all ages will learn about moving from crisis to re-birth, discovering a secret chapter to our lives, aligning with grace through chaos, navigating the unexpected and beauty and love at any age.
Fee: $58
Registration link

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.

Learning How to See – Honoring Mike Nichols

mike-nichols1I begin the first reflection in The Way with a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.” Mike Nichols taught my generation how to see.

College students in the 60’s memorized the improvisational comedy routines he did with his partner Elaine May. They and their contemporaries didn’t tell jokes like Bob Hope and Milton Berle and other favorites of the “greatest generation.” Their humor was different, edgier, situational rooted in the angst, neuroses, and existential panic of the first generation to grow up with the bomb.

Nichols first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf exposed people to a view of marriage and relationship that was the polar opposite of “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” It shocked viewers as it hurtled forward at roller coaster speed moving audiences from laughter to heartbreak and back.

Life1969His second film, The Graduate (1967) was a cri de coeur for a generation who was being told that the future was “plastic.” The same year the film was released, “Don’t Trust Anyone over 30” became the generation’s slogan. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, the rebel without a clue, became the symbol of its confusion and unrest, so much so that the July 11, 1969  cover of Life magazine features an image of Dustin Hoffman contrasted with an image of John Wayne and the caption: “Dusty and the Duke—A Choice of Heroes.” (I have a copy of the magazine.) At the end of “The Graduate” Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross, accompanied by the music of Simon and Garfunkel, escape without having any idea of where they were going. The songs gave voice to Benjamin’s inarticulate longing and to that of much of my generation.

More often than not his best films portrayed people trying not to lose their souls in an increasingly impersonal world. He followed The Graduate with an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22  a satire of war that mirrored the nation’s frustration with Vietnam. Silkwood dramatized the efforts of the whistleblower heroine, and gave voice to baby-boomer paranoia and legitimate distrust of faceless corporations. Charlie Wilson’s War, Nichols last film in a career that spanned forty years, depicted an anti-hero’s maneuvering his way through the swamp of government bureaucracy in Washington.

Mike Nichols was an artist of his age and for the ages. His work challenged and inspired me and I will miss him.

The Next Archetypes and a Movie Course

Aside

The_Way_Logo_2_PrePromoAfter all of the excitement and getting folks to vote on the next Archetypes & A Movie course, we have pulled a switch-a-rooney! Julienne and I got part way into recording the ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and it just didn’t feel right. Both our intuition and wisdom told us that it simply wasn’t the right time for it.  Having just taught “The Way” a few days before, it was the most timely and generative choice for the next audio workshop.

We plan to combine the recording of my talk in LA with the recording of the movie commentary plus even more bonus material. Look for the new course in late summer! (We’re hoping by September…)

Our apologies to everyone who voted for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it remains at the top of our list and we are sure that the course on The Way will be fulfilling as well.

One Day Pilgrimage – LA Area

TheWay_2

Is it possible to make a pilgrimage in one day? Perhaps, not, but it is possible to begin! Spend a day with and on “The Way“.
When: July 12th, 9am – 3:30pm
Where: All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101
Fee: $55 (with lunch), $45 (bring your own lunch)
Register Now

Many films are contemplative works of art, they meet us where we are and offer a mirror image of our inner selves.

The film, “The Way” is such a work of art. It follows four pilgrims as they travel the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It features actor Martin Sheen and is directed by his son Emilio Estevez. The film is powerful, inspirational, capturing the outer journey while illuminating the inner one.

Join teacher and spiritual director, Jim Curtan as he guides us along the route of the pilgrimage, pausing along the way, as pilgrims do, at various stages of the journey to reflect on the insight, inspiration and intuitive guidance we receive.
Jim has combined his 20 years experience in the entertainment industry with more than a decade as a retreat leader, archetypal counselor and spiritual director to develop a unique and entertaining approach to using film as a gateway to rich spiritual experience.

Download the flyer: A Day on the Way
Register Now

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”
-Thomas Merton, “Mystics and Zen Masters”

Archetypes and a Movie Poll

Many of you have already enjoyed the first edition of my ‘Archetypes and a Movie’ series: Ratatouille:  Fate, Destiny & the Hero’s Journey.  We are in the process of planning the next workshop and would love your feedback on what you would most like to see and learn from.

The theme of “pilgrimage” has been coming up quite a bit lately and pilgrimages can take many forms.  While you don’t literally need to travel to go on a pilgrimage, it’s always a journey to the Sacred.  The word pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) means a traveler, literally one who has come from afar.

Each of these films are an exploration of the archetype of the pilgrimage. We’d like to know which one you would most like to experience as an audio workshop.

Please take a few seconds to complete the 3 poll questions below.

Many thanks,
Jim and Julienne

Film Choices for a course on Pilgrimage

The Way (2010) TheWay_2staring Martin Sheendarjeeling_limited

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) staring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith & Tom Wilkinson

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) staring Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson & Jason Schwartzman

Philomena_posterPhilomena (2013)BEst staring Judi Dench & Steve Coogan

 

You can also use the comments below to suggest a film not on this list and tell us why you’d like to learn from it.

The Year of the Survivor: from Katniss to Jasmine

In the magnificent new document, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts “all the communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” This, he says, “is a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.” Later in the document, the Pope says, “When we attempt to read signs of the times it is helpful to listen to young people and the elderly.”

St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, of which Pope Francis is a member, placed great emphasis on scrutinizing the signs of the times as a vital tool of spiritual discernment. As the product of eight years of Jesuit education, I have long been in the habit of paying attention to the signs of the time.

Here are some signs that caught my attention during the December 3rd broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition.

  1. The median rent for an apartment in San Francisco has risen to $3400 per month. Evictions have risen 175% in the last three years as landlords and real estate speculators evict long time tenants to convert apartment buildings into condos. Many of these evictees are disabled or seniors on fixed incomes. The inner Mission District, home to a mix of working-class Latinos, artists and activists, has been particularly hard hit.  Former Mayor Art Agnos says the city is struggling to keep families who make $60,000 to S100,000 per year in the city and “It’s all but over for the poor.”
  2. Every three years since 2000, 15 year-olds from around the world take a test to evaluate their skills in reading, math and science. Scores for U. S. students have been flat since 2003.
  3. Close to 2,000,000 new jobs have been added to the work force this year, however many new hires are working fragmented unpredictable hours. They are asked to commit to 5 days of availability for last-minute scheduling with no guarantee of work. Instead the employee waits on call while a computer program calculates the need for more or less staff to be called in during the day.
  4. Conservative columnist, Yuval Levin was interviewed about his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left. He spoke about the distinction between governments run on principles and governments run on theories. The interview left little doubt that leaders in all three branches of our government have lost sight of the principles on which our nation is founded and have brought us to near-paralysis in a never-ending debate about theories—a debate which fails to serve or support the people.
  5. All of this good news was followed by the Marketplace Morning Report’s discussion of the 17% unemployment rate among young people 16-24. Harper’s Magazine Columnist, Jeff Madrick, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute noted that while corporations and special interest groups like seniors have full-time lobbyists representing their interests, young people who are “rapidly becoming the most disadvantaged group in America” have no voice or representation at all. College graduates who can’t find better jobs and seniors who can’t afford to retire are filling jobs that used to provide entry-level employment for the young. Madrick suggests that the popularity of movies like The Hunger Games and movements like Occupy Wall Street reflect young people’s growing dissatisfaction with the establishment. He ends the interview wondering, “Is rebellion the only way you’re going to get some justice out of the nation?”  . . . “It would not be unprecedented.”
Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Katniss-in-Catching-FIre_gallery_primary

Jennifer Lawrence as 17 yr old Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire (2013)

Another way of reading the signs of the times is by paying close attention to popular culture, movies and television.  And this has, no doubt, been the year of the survivor. Dystopian societies abound in which the privileged and cynical 1% hoard food, medicine and resources while the 99% live in fear and misery as they do in Catching FireElysium and most especially, 12 Years A Slave.  Entrenched and inefficient bureaucracies, self- righteous in their superiority strangle others with their out-of-date often arbitrary rules, threatening the lives of AIDS patients in The Dallas Buyers Club and at-risk teenagers in both Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station. The heroine of Gravity and the hero of All is Lost fight for life alone in the incomprehensible and unforgiving vastness of space and sea. The kidnapped hero of Captain Phillips discovers that captors are as desperate to survive as he is. When Captain Phiilips asks the hijackers if there isn’t something else they could do as an alternative to being pirates, their leader says, “Maybe in America.”  Today some Americans might reply, “Maybe not.”

Although not all of the characters survive, their will to survive is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine (2013)

The only character in a major film that lacks the character and skills to survive is Jasmine, the privileged and entitled central character of Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. Unlike the characters in the rest of this year’s films, all of whom nature and the times have made into unsentimental realists, Jasmine clings to the groundless expectation that she will be magically restored to the station she unwaveringly believes she deserves.

Reflecting on the signs of the times, Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, says

“In a time of change and perpetual surprise we’ve arrived at a moment of peril that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable. . . . All around us the ideas and institutions that we once relied upon for our safety and security are failing.”

“In a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation,” he continues,” you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary. People at revolutions who didn=t act that way have a particular name: victims.”

Jasmine and her larcenous, con-artist husband represent the culture of high finance, hedge funds and fraudulent mortgages—the fabled “1%” who manipulate markets, news media and the nation’s pay-to-play political system. Pushed to the wall, they are revealed to have neither courage, nor character, nor endurance. They are rigid and unable to adapt, to imagine a world other than the one they’ve lost. They are victims.

The younger generation of the 1% has no buy-in to the market. They get their news from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert who mercilessly expose the hypocrisies and folly of the elite. They are more likely to read the rigorous investigative reporting of Matt Taibbi and heisenberg-chocolateothers in Rolling Stone than to scan the pages of The Wall Street Journal. They organize through the social media. They don’t watch television: they download entertainment from the internet. Walter White (Breaking Bad), the straight arrow high-school chemistry teacher who, screwed over by the system when he needs health care, becomes a ruthless drug lord is a folk hero. Heisenberg T-shirts abound.

Katniss, the heroine of “The Hunger Games”, along with the protagonists of Dallas Buyer’s Club, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Elysium, Captain Phillips, and even 12 Years a Slave represent the “99%”. What unites these characters is their refusal to be victims; they inspire us with their refusal to submit passively or helplessly to the circumstances they find themselves in regardless of how hopeless and impossible they might be. They are rebels and revolutionaries.

Asked if he was an optimist, Pope Francis said,

“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude. I like to use the word hope. Hope is a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

In these chaotic times, these movies, most of which are based on true life events, speak to me like signs. They give me hope.

Happy New Year!

Love,
Jim

Guide To Summer Movies 2013

Hidden amidst the glut of over-produced and under-performing summer blockbusters and tired sequels, are a handful of movies that are worth checking out. Here are a few of my recommendations.

THE-EAST-Poster_smSUSPENSE
The East is a smart, complex, suspenseful thriller about the war the battle between eco-terrorists and corporate polluters. The morally certain heroine, played by Brit Marling (who also co-authored the screenplay), goes undercover to infiltrate and expose an anarchist group and discovers an alternately idealistic and violent commune. She finds her loyalties shifting as she discovers increasingly disturbing information about the agency that hired her and the clients it represents.

DOCUMENTARY
20 Feet from Stardom is a joyful, inspiring documentary recounting the lives and careers of five rock and roll back up singers who have sung with everybody from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Tina Turner to Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler. Among the featured backup singers is the legendary Darlene Love whose battle to escape the control of record producer Phil Spector provides the heart of the story.

FillTheVoidDRAMA
Fill the Void is a beautiful and moving Israeli import about family, tradition, faith and the tension between choice and duty. It offers a rare glimpse into the hidden lives of Ultra-Orthodox Jews as they find ways to confront tragedy and renewal within the strong bonds of community. This is a masterpiece. Not to be missed.

Fruitvale Station. The recent Trayvon Martin tragedy may give this beautifully crafted film added resonance and timeliness, but it stands on its own as a powerful work of art, the best film I’ve seen this summer. First time director, Ryan Coogler has adapted the true story of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old black man who was shot in the back by a Bay Area transit officer on New Year’s Eve 2008. The film chronicles the last day of Oscar’s life. Although, the events of the day are ordinary, each moment is made precious by the viewer’s knowledge that it is his last. The film features Octavia Spencer (Academy Award winner for The Help) as Oscar’s mother and Michael B. Jordan (The Wire and Friday Night Lights) in a star-making performance as Oscar. Like the best works of art, this film is worth repeated viewing and reflection.

the-way-way-back-poster1COMEDY
The Way, Way Back is a coming of age story about an adolescent forced to spend the summer at a vacation home with his divorced mother, her creep boyfriend, his nasty daughter and their dysfunctional neighbors. He finds refuge at a local water park where he is mentored under the tutelage of its eccentric staff. From the producers of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine and written and directed by the Academy Award Winning screenwriters of “The Descendants,” the movie blends comedy and pathos with the same expertise they brought to their previous movies. Featuring knockout comic performances from Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell.

ROMANTIC COMEDY
Much Ado About Nothing. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Killer and the writer/director of last year’s highest grossing movie, The Avengers, would seem an odd choice to adapt and direct Shakespeare’s classic comedy. It turns out to be a perfect match. Filmed in black and white in only 12 days, using the director’s home for all the locations on a budget that was likely 1% of the budget for The Avengers, Whedon has created a sophisticated, playful, down-to-earth, romantic comedy. You don’t have studied Shakespeare to enjoy it.