Tag Archive - Film

The Tree of Life

In everyday English, the word mystery implies a puzzle to be solved, a conundrum to be unraveled…In the east, on the other hand, a mystery is an area where the human mind cannot go, where the heart alone makes sense–not by knowing, but by being.  The Greek word mysterion leads you into a sense of “not knowing” or “not understanding” and leaves you there.  Having arrived, all you can do is gaze and wonder; there is nothing to solve.

~Archimandrite Meletios Webber in Bread and Water, Wine and Oil

The Tree of Life, a new film by Terrence Malick, is mysterion on steroids. It is a wrestling, a fascination, a dialogue with God….with truth…with meaning.

It is a film with vast open spaces. Open spaces in the story where the mind works furiously to interpret…to understand. Open spaces in the film itself…breathtaking images of volcanic eruptions, rushing water, cosmic clouds perfumed with dazzling light….and underneath these: silence. A guided contemplation of sorts. With only occasional whispers. Questions. The ones we speak against the night. Are you out there? Do you see me? Do you care? Where were you when….?

Jack (Sean Penn) asks God when it was that He began to speak to him… We see a baby all in white. Curtains billow in the breeze. Shafts of sunlight play on the wooden floor. And tiny, bare feet dance against the air. We look up through the branches of a great climbing tree with silvered leaves rustling in the wind. A butterfly. All the clean joy of a world brand new. A romance has begun.

This world of little boy joy is punctuated with dark, hard places. A brother dies. A father (Brad Pitt) is too often ruled by anger. In his misguided attempts at making his boys strong….and making himself a “great man”…he is sometimes harsh, brutal, unkind. Difficult to reconcile with the man who carries them on his shoulders…the man whose hands coax beautiful music from the keys of their piano and the church organ…the man who piously kneels before God and prays. Fear and love are inextricably linked in the minds of his sons. How do you learn to trust when you never quite feel safe?

Still, in and out of these places of pain are woven shivering grasses along the edge of a lake, ripple of water over stones, a heart throbbing the rhythm of life, hot red lava spilling over the edge of a crater as billows of gray and blue rise skyward, tiny sperm spirals seeking out an egg to begin life anew, water thundering over the edge of a precipice to pound against the pool below. Difficult to reconcile this grandeur with one who lets brothers die…who allows fathers to beat their children. Is it possible to hold onto wonder…always?

The Tree of Life is unlike any film I have ever seen. It is troubling and sacred. Difficult and glorious. An invitation to enter into mystery. To be saturated in it. I encourage you to plunge in.

The film is showing in limited release at present. If you live in Nashville you can catch it at the Belcourt Cinema. If not, click HERE to find a location near you.

Midnight in Paris

The film opens with a glorious montage of Paris scenes, 1920’s era Jazz playing underneath, and I know that I am being transported…lifted out of my common existence for a bit and carried far away. I just have no idea how far……

On this night I will party with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald while Cole Porter belts out tunes on the parlor piano. I will listen with mouth agape to the profound ramblings of one Ernest Hemingway. I will arrive at the salon of Gertrude Stein just in time to hear her critique the work of a passionate young Spanish painter. Pablo Picasso. At every turn they are there waiting for me; the luminaries of 1920s Paris. It is a most marvelous adventure as I stumble upon Salvadore Dali….he is quite a character…T.S. Eliot…the exquisite Josephine Baker. I must be dreaming…

Gil is a writer. He came to Paris once when he was a young man. He can’t remember why he left. He is enchanted by the city. It nourishes something deep inside him. His fiance and her family, on the other hand, seem determined to be uncharmed by the city. Cynical and without imagination, they exploit  but refuse to understand. One quickly gets the sense that this is their approach to Gil as well.

One evening he takes a stroll to clear his head. As an ancient clock clangs the hour of midnight, a car pulls alongside him and whisks him away into the world he feels he was born for, Paris in the 1920s. The “perfect era”. It is his dream I have been walking in, not my own. Though for all the delight it brings me, it might as well have been.

He meets a girl, Adriana. She was mistress once to Modigliani, then Braque, and now Picasso. A haunting beauty (played mesmerizingly by Marion Cotillard), she captivates Gil. And she finds in him a safe place to confide that she too longs to have lived in a different time. La Belle Epoque of Paris; the 1890s. We will pay a little visit to this world as well, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. She will decide to stay here. Gil will not.

In between the gorgeous cinematography and the continual delight of bumping into these remarkable personages, there are questions to ponder. Questions about fear. About dreams. About settling, taking the path of least resistance. About escape. And about, as Hemingway says, what is true.

Midnight in Paris is one of the most enjoyable films I have ever seen. My fellow theater goers and I laughed out loud in places. Gasped and sighed. Owen Wilson gives a most nuanced and winsome performance. And though I will not spoil the film by revealing how it all turns out in the end, I will tell you that there is a very satisfying last scene…on a bridge…with a girl…in the rain…

To ponder: If you could visit any past era, any location, where would you go? I would love to know.

Warhol Live

Pop art has descended upon Nashville. Opening today at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville is a remarkable exhibit illustrating the interplay of music, cinema, opera, dance, and pop culture in the works of Andy Warhol, a creator of icons who somewhere along the way became an icon himself.

This is a very accessible exhibit. If you lived in any part of the twentieth century you will find yourself here. Familiar faces. Images transformed by Warhol’s unique perspective. The soup cans are here. The portraits. And over 40 album covers, including the first interactive jacket (a 1967 recording by Velvet Underground) and probably his most famous: Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. The covers are displayed in free standing clear walls so that you can see both sides.

Strolling through the gallery was a delight. Every turn of the corner takes you into another part of Warhol’s world. Each visitor will have his/her own personal favorites. These are mine.

Marth GrahamLetter to the World (The Kick)

I’ve always loved this photograph of Martha Graham. Such artistry of the body. So graceful and lovely. It was fun to see what Warhol did with it. He saturated himself with dance, opera, a great variety of art. The exhibit includes playbills and librettos that belonged to him.


Warhol’s studio was called the Silver Factory because he had Billy Name decorate it in silver using paint, foil and mirrors. One fairly large section of the exhibit is shown against silver walls. I enjoyed imagining him creating his work in this milieu.

Warhol embraced Richard Wagner’s theory of Gesamtkunstwerk, “total artwork”. Art that unites a variety of expression. Art that wraps itself around you. With that in mind, curators invite you to step inside two different Warhol creations. Definitely the highlight of the whole exhibit for me.

The first is from the set design of Rainforest, an avant garde work by dancer Merce Cunningham. You stand inside a room filled with floating silver pillows while Cunningham dances among the pillows on screen. I heard grown men and women giggling. I might have giggled myself.

The second is from Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a show Warhol developed around the music of Velvet Underground. Warhol was their producer, and they were regulars at the Silver Factory. The shows involved video shown against screens and against the performers themselves, dance, and lots of light play. In the exhibit you can walk all around inside this. Film is playing on two different screens. Music. Light filtered through colored slides creeps up the walls and across your face.  A constant strobe keeps everything feeling a little off kilter. The scene is constantly morphing, evolving, transforming.


Warhol is an important voice. Like his friend John Cage, he constantly blurred the lines between life and art, encouraging us to see the beautiful around us. Through his album covers and prints he satisfied his desire to put art into the hands of the masses. He had something else, too. Something we don’t always perceive. Curator Stephane Aquin calls it a tragic consciousness. You can see it especially in the later works, including the self portrait at the top of the post. He had lived life as fast and furiously as possible. He had created and played. But there was always something missing. Something that eluded him. It leaves one with important questions to ponder.

Warhol Live will be at the Frist until September 11th. I encourage you to pay a visit. Be informed that, though children will find this exhibit fascinating and delightful, some subject matter, primarily in the films, is adult in nature. You might wish to preview before bringing your small people.

Surface and Symbol

To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts-such is the duty of the artist. ~Robert Schumann

When God has difficult truth to convey to David, he sends him a storyteller. Because he knows that stories carry truth to the deepest parts of us. The parts of us that most need healing. When He teaches Moses about worship, it is a multi-sensory affair with incense, gold, cedar, silk, candles, bells. Why? Because he would have us breathe him….stand inside him…know Him viscerally.

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. ~T.S. Eliot

Have you ever encountered a piece of music, a poem, a movie, that troubled you though you knew not why? That rankled your heart, your mind, for days? Or, perhaps, that somehow elevated and ennobled you, though you could not say how? Such is the power of art. Deep calling to deep. Soul to soul. In Ian Cron’s new memoir, he speaks of a literature professor known for his keen analytical abilities. He tells how sometimes this professor would read a passage to the students, close the book, and stand in silent reverie. “Sometimes it is wiser to reverence than to parse.”

I want to beg you to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. ~Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke

So much of myself is unknown to me. Like a skilled surgeon, art probes these unknown places, revealing what lies within. It is not always pretty. I do not always want to know. And sometimes, it leads only to more questions. But this is how I grow. This is what frees me from disastrous choices made to appease hungers I do not even know I have.

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

~Oscar Wilde

An encounter with art is not for the faint of heart. It will always ask something of you. It will, if you let it, teach you about yourself. It will, if you let it, make you more than you are. I challenge you to pick up a classic work of literature, spend an afternoon in an art gallery, read a poem–out loud–letting the words wash over you, treat yourself to an artfully made film or an evening at the symphony. And listen….

Suggested Resources:

The American Film Institute’s Top 100 films– All American films, yes, but not a bad place to start.

Invitation to the Classics
or The Joy of Reading– If your education, like mine, was woefully spare on classic literature, these books will help you know what to read. Invitation to the Classics tells you why the work is significant and gives suggested translations/editions. The Joy of Reading has wonderful synopses and includes a ten-year reading plan.

Though my house is full of art books, I believe nothing compares with standing before the work itself. Include visits to great museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art or MOMA in New York, The Smithsonian in Washington, or The Getty in Los Angeles as part of your travels. And frequent your local museums and art galleries, however humble.

A Child’s Introduction to Poetry is a beautiful book to share with young ones you love, and not a bad place to begin yourself if poetry is new to you. My copy of Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor, is dog eared and worn from much love. You can also meet some of my own favorite bards in the post Thoughts That Breathe, Words That Burn.

There is nothing like sitting in a live music venue and letting the music wrap itself around you, pound in your chest and seep into your pores. True, here in Nashville we have more than our fair share of options. But wherever you live, it is there to be found if you search it out. If you live near a city of any size, I’ll be willing to wager your symphony will do something out of doors (and maybe free) this summer. Visit a writer’s night at a local cafe. Save your pennies, and take a road trip if necessary, to hear your favorite legendary rock band or Indy artist do their magic in person.

Who is John Galt?

Who is John Galt?

It is the opening line of the book. An enigma. A conundrum. A plea? A brilliant bit of storytelling, to be sure. If one is asking a reader to make a 1200 page commitment to a novel, one must seduce them right up front. Ayn Rand certainly knew how to do that.

Today, “Who is John Galt?” has become a password of sorts to those who know her work. It has also become a rallying point amidst fears that we might be slowly creeping toward the type of socialist, entitlement, incentiveless society that horrified her.

You now have a chance to taste a bit of her work. A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is currently in theaters in limited release. While it is impossible to bring the subtleties of the novel to the screen-the luscious character development, the complex meanderings of plot, the layers of philosophical wrangling-I believe the film remains true to the essence of her magnum opus.

While some of the casting decisions are less than stellar, I think Dagny Taggart is spot on. Elegant. Pretty…enough. Fiercely determined. Cool. Collected. With passion reigned in always just below the surface, but thrumming loud enough that those around her are properly intimidated. I love the look in Hank’s eyes when he speaks of Reardon Metal. Pride, wonder, love…all in one delirious jumble. I love the dinner scene with Ellis Wyatt when three people who are living life full throttle share ideas and unrestrained laughter over food and wine.

Hired personally by Cecil B Demille for her first job in the movie industry, it would be interesting to know what Rand herself would think of the film. She had studied at the State Institute for Cinema Arts, and her first successes in America came as a screenwriter.

I will be eager to see how film-makers play out the rest of the story. But, more than that, I find myself longing to plunge back into the novel again. To watch Rand bring these characters to life under my eyes. To feel the anxiety and terror and confusion of a world losing its most brilliant minds. To remember how easy it is to delude ourselves into believing almost anything if the words are just right. To get inside the mind of someone who sees the world with clarity and vision and dares to dream of what might be.

Who IS John Galt? It is a question that matters more than you know. Especially today. I invite you to find out.

Of Gods and Men

I said, “You are gods, And all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men… ~Psalm 82: 6,7

It is a film made with an elegant reserve fitted to its subject. An abstract art that invites the viewer to participate in its creation. Wordless scenes. Gesture. Movement. Long, meaningful gazes. Men who have so long lived together that these are enough. A reprieve from our habitually unrestrained verbosity.

We hear the scuff of shoes against wood floors. Crunch of snow. Soft patter of rain. Bleat of sheep. Lap of lake. Earthy scrape of fork against soil. Unburdened with the din of voices. We see the slow work of filling jars with honey. Placing candles in stands. Driving sheep. Dropping seeds in earth.

Still, words have knit them together. And these words will become refuge. Psalms the brothers sing together will be peace and rest and courage when times grow excruciatingly perilous…

Eight Cistercian monks from France dwell in the mountains of Algeria. They and their Muslim neighbors live in and out of one another. Sharing bread, celebrating together, serving one another. Honor, respect, and love have grown up among them over years. When militant Muslim extremists begin a reign of terror, both are horrified. It is suggested, nearly demanded, by the authorities that the monks flee. It is not their war after all.

Or is it?

What does it mean to give your life away? Is it not enough to have given up family, position, possessions? How far is one called to go? Is it reckless to put oneself in harm’s way for another?

As each man, in community and alone, wrestles with these questions, their agony is my agony. Visible. Visceral. Violent.

They ponder the question with the village elders. “We are like birds on a branch. We don’t know if we’ll leave.” One Muslim woman answers, “We are the birds. You are the branch. If you go, we lose our footing.” And this is where, in the end, they will find their answer. They have been called to this place. To this people. You do not leave the people you love because loving them has become difficult.

It will be a costly decision.

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.

~Penned, in the film, by Christian, leader of the community

This is a remarkable film. I was completely undone by it. It is based on the tragic Tibhirine massacre that took place in Algeria in 1996. It is an heroic story, the sort of which we know far too few. I recommend it for all persons of faith and goodwill everywhere. If you live in Nashville, you can see it through Sunday at the Belcourt. It releases on DVD in July.

*Winner of the Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival, 2010

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