Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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WHAT’S A GOOD priest for? So asks Calvary, the second feature film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, rooting itself in Ireland’s coastal landscape, centering on a pastor threatened with scapegoat-retributive murder from a grievously sinned-against parishioner. Its vibe owes a great deal to the quiet reflection of films such as Jesus of Montreal and Au Hasard Balthazar (in which a donkey evokes the love and wounds of Christ), and the archetypal Westerns High Noon and Unforgiven. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who was drawn into the church after his wife’s death, which allows us the rare experience of seeing a cinematic Catholic priest who is both a parent to his flock and to a beloved daughter, who feels somewhat abandoned by his commitment to the church.
Gleeson has the uncanny ability to hold his massive frame as both solid—almost concrete—and vulnerable. Knowing that everyone is both broken and breaker, his Father James is healing on behalf of a flawed institution, although he doesn’t confuse vocation with a job. His bishop’s response to a request for help is “I’m not saying anything,” reminding me of Daniel Berrigan’s challenge to religious hierarchies, heard at a public meeting in Dublin in the run-up to the Iraq war: “In Vietnam, they had nothing to say, and said nothing; now, they have nothing to say, and they’re saying it.”
Father James understands the difference between stewarding power and grabbing it (one obvious signal of his goodness), and he is up to his neck in the community, running the gamut from friendship with an American writer looking for inspiration in the land of his presumed ancestors to a visit with a former pupil whose own inner darkness has led him to do monstrous things.
Small Screen, Great Drama
IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.
Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.
THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.
Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.
So when at North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this spring we watched Visitors, Godfrey Reggio’s follow-up to his epochal Qatsi trilogy, and the diverse faces of human beings segued into natural landscape and a Louisiana cemetery, the sense of empathic connection with an artist who spent the first 14 years of his life in New Orleans and the next 14 as a Christian Brothers monk was palpable. The impossible-to-categorize musician Nick Cave portrayed a sly version of himself in the pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, intercutting concert footage with a role-played therapy session, visits with friends, and a neo-noir road trip, to moving effect. And the gay rights courtroom drama of The Case Against 8 played to an audience of citizens whose state had adopted a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; the showing led to near-euphoric anticipation of how a better history can reverse this tide.
Security State Superheroes
THE CLASSIC COMIC book hero is given a post-WikiLeaks spin in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He realizes that he is being asked to participate in the extrajudicial killing of people whom a magic formula has decided might threaten the established order in the future. It’s intriguing that even Nick Fury, one of Captain America’s “bosses” at the superhero super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (lines of authority are never particularly clear when super powers are in play), almost goes along with this.
To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down, says character Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in a role that both echoes and inverts the ones he often took in the ’70s—where, in films such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, he fought the system from within for good. This time Redford’s having fun as a bad guy, while Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) is the golden boy flirting with the audience and inviting us into his subversive politics (indeed the first words he speaks—the first words of the movie—are “on your left”).
So The Winter Soldier is striving for far more than your typical comic book movie and has been clearly influenced by the Dark Knighttrilogy in aiming for philosophical depth. There are interesting ideas here—S.H.I.E.L.D. being part of the problem and the character Winter Soldier’s name evoking the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier about Vietnam vets expressing regret. There are fun bits of business with Steve Rogers’ difficulties in adjusting to the contemporary world (such as the dawning reality that Star Wars andStar Trek are different things). And there’s real character development, especially in Rogers’ interactions with the Black Widow.
If I Were a Rich Man
BEST-SELLING WRITER James Patterson recently established a million-dollar fund to support independent bookstores amid the current publishing industry crisis. Patterson is showing both generosity of spirit and humility before the audience that made him rich, not to mention an ethical commitment to the community-building impact and personal pleasures of smaller bookshops.
I think his open-minded and visionary idea should be translated to independent theaters too. The experience of entering shopping mall multiplexes to be seated in a shoebox and watch 25 minutes of advertisements before the same film that’s screening at every other multiplex does not resonate with the poetics of the art. And I mean that literally—beautiful cinema does not belong in an ugly industrial container. I mean “belong” literally too—if art is about belonging, about the idea of finding a home for our idea of ourselves, then it would make more sense to screen movies in environments that invite a sense of home, not evoke battery farms.
If James Patterson were to set up another million-dollar fund devoted to independent movie theaters, I’d be happy to help him spend it. I’d upgrade projection, audio, and lighting so that as much attention can be paid to how a film looks as to how paintings are hung in a gallery or music played in a concert. I’d make the seats comfortable for average-sized human beings. I’d give grants to community groups who want to refurbish their dilapidated downtown theater as a venue for the common good. I’d screen films that invite social change. I’d develop new distribution networks that challenge the dominance of the military-industrial-entertainment complex—offering the rights to screen films in exchange for an ethical fee or a gift in-kind. I’d have potlucks at 5:30 p.m. and movies at 6:30 p.m. so there’s enough time afterward to write poetry together or march on the capitol.
Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.
Not Afraid of the Dark
The Coens realize that sometimes, of course, comedy is bleak. But the point of gargoyles is to remind us that sacred and profane coexist.
States of Being
The 10 best U.S. films of 2013.
Fifty years ago, a kind of innocence was taken, and a kind of brokenness remains unrepaired.
Making Once Enough
About Time is funny, beguiling, and even profound.
Complexities of Struggle and Love
The makers of The Butler have told a kind of truth about the struggle for "beloved community" that has rarely been seen so clearly on multiplex screens.
Meditating on Memory
When we experience movies like memories, we meditate rather than consume, and do what Pascal suggested was the antidote to all the problems in the world: sitting still for 10 minutes and thinking.
Beauty as Antidote
If beauty heals the world, and the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, who's up for demanding a better cinema experience?
Transcending a Genocidal God
The History Channel's The Bible, like so much of so-callled "religious pop culture," seemed to be the product of good people trying to do a good thing, but at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.
Paved with Good Intentions
The beginning of wisdom proposed in the best documentaries is simply this: telling the truth, to ourselves and others, as best as we can.
A True Contender
The new Criterion BluRay edition of On the Waterfront not only offers the crispest representation of the 1954 New Jersey dockyard visuals any of us have ever seen, it also illustrates the sociopolitical and creative context in a manner richer than any previously released.
Time to Start Talking
There is an overwhelming need for publicly compelling conversation about violence, guns, and the role of entertainment media.
Oscars and the Big Picture
We shouldn't really expect the Oscars to grasp the point of history, though this year the films nominated for Best Picture are a fascinating snapshot of what ails—and could heal—us.
Top 10 of 2012
Here's my list of the best films released in 2012.
Assassins and Psychopaths
Three of the best films of the year: Samsara, Looper, and Seven Psychopaths.