Monday, March 17, 2014

25th Hour (2002)


"I need you to make me ugly" feels more like a confession than a command. It is something that happens in America when various forms of privilege are actually held accountable. Ugly needs to rise to the surface and be made known. Monty understands this is going to happen one way or another, and in his powerlessness & limitation, he demands his childhood friend Frank to execute upon him a bloody, swollen face that might act as a kind of mask for his first few days of incarceration.

Monty likely recognizes that he is not as fiercely independent as Lukas Jackson or as clever as Andy Dufrasne, and that real prison is nothing like movie prison.  And to resist or escape actually misses the point. Confrontation is necessary now, and though the dream of becoming anonymous in a small town out west is palpable, it would simply be inauthentic. He'd still be trying to wipe the "fuck you" off the mirror.

There is the anticipation of a kind of resurrection through this process for Monty. Certainly more than his friends might ever experience in their own life, and seemingly more than post 9/11 America, who has been working hard to keep it's ugliness cloaked from itself, let alone the rest of the world. Monty's choice to eventually accept the consequence of physical imprisonment might also be the gateway to an unseen freedom of mind, heart, and soul. Selling out Nikolai or driving out West with his father are both choices that will not liberate the soul - and Monty intuitively seems to recognize this within himself.  Otherwise, he wouldn't have the strength to confront it, to take the beating, to discover something real about himself.

America on the other hand, seems to have compromised it's own soul for industrial, technological, and political "progress". It has too much to justify & defend to see itself as part of the problem. But Spike Lee seems to care about America, about New York City, and depicts it as an imperfect, yet beautifully diverse place. Like Monty, America still has something to offer, but unless it can take responsibility for it's limitations & failures, it will only become more violent, more divided, full of greed, entitlement, and ugly.

Which, if nothing else, exposes our need to continually return to The Mirror until we can see ourselves in it. This is the only place we can cultivate empathy as an antidote to shame & judgement, as a way of moving from violence towards understanding.  (See "The Interrupters"). It has to be an intentional process, and sometimes, as with Montgomery Brogan, it begins with a staunch "Fuck You!", jump starting an inner journey, west to the desert of the soul.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Take Shelter (2011)

"Take Shelter powerfully lays bare our national anxiety disorder — a pervasive dread that Curtis can define only as 'something that's not right.'" - Melissa Anderson

Anxiety is related to our fragility, our vulnerability, in a world that doesn't feel secure, whether it actually is or not.  When we have something to lose, we feel insecure, which creates anxiety.  Deeper level anxiety comes from the experience of shame (maybe from failure, hand-me-down wounds, cultural or religious perfectionsim, or various levels of abuse), which unless we are able to process through it towards understanding & acceptance, we won't learn much about ourselves, who we are, or who we are becoming.  This type of anxiety will absolutely enslave or imprision us - and it has already been proven that anxiety is more powerful than logic in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress.  I would also suggest that our basic insecurities & anxieties can carry that same power when we are forced to confront our limitations, often due to some level of relative "crisis".

Curtis becomes less functional as he begins to obsess over the visions of a coming apocalyptic storm, which is the product of the inner storm brewing within him.  Like many men in the Western world, Curtis is expected to control his external world - to provide, to be responsible, to work, to fight if necessary, and to ultimately be perceived as strong & good & right.  To ask for help is considered a failure.  To have your integrity in question is an abomination.  To admit that you are a flawed human being is incomprehensible - something only necessary for alcoholics and drug addicts, not "good" people.  But for all of us, this admonition of being imperfect, an addict, a sinner, a slave, a prisoner, a prostitute, a failure, etc., (whether literal or symbolic) is the only gateway to any kind of inner life, emotional process, and authentic spirituality.

This is why the symbolic scene of death & resurrection (baptism) in Take Shelter is so powerful.  As Richard Rohr describes, " more surrendering than concluding, more trusting than fixing. You cannot get yourself enlightened by any known program, ritual, or moral practice. All you can do is stay on the journey, listen to it's lessons, both agony & ecstasy, and ask for that most rare & crucial of gifts: true openness, which Jesus called trust or faith. The (shelter) door (that God opens out of complex consciousness) is usually some form of suffering (physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, structural) for almost all of the enlightened & saved people I have ever met. ...Initiation always taught the young men to die before they died, and then they would begin to live.  Apparently it is the best and clearest way to put everything in proper order & alignment. As Saint Francis put it, "If you have once faced the great death, the second death can do you no harm."

From this perspective, I believe the final moments of the film become much less ambigious.  As the "second death" approaches, instead of experiencing fear, shame, disappointment, blame, or insecurity, they experience a sense of empowerment in their connection - in their understanding of who they are and what they need - together.  They haven't "overcome" fear as much as they have accepted their limitations, their vulnerabilities, their need for a "higher power". They can stand together and confront the storm, rather than hide in isolation or divorce.  The innate feeling of powerlessness towards something bigger than themselves has become the power with which they can now encounter the unknown.  This shared vulnerability has become the foundation of their marriage.  And maybe for the first time, do they really understand what it means to become "one".

"Okay".  (Samantha's final word as the storm approaches)

Samantha (whose name apparently means "God Heard" or "Listener") directly represents spirituality in the film.  She carries the inner strength & feminine resilience that belies Curtis.  She is the "spirit" that empowers Curtis to confront his fears.  She "knows" without knowing, and she gives sight to the blind.  She gives Curtis the necessary grace to fail, to learn, to become human - with appropriate boundaries, with emotional honesty, with confrontation.  In their darkest, most "grave" moment, she is mature enough to see "The" opportunity for resurrection.  She exemplifies the real meaning of marriage, and subverts the traditional white male (King James) interpretation of "submission".

She is absolutely "prepared" for the storm.


I love this film and this filmmaker. Jeff Nichols & Steve McQueen, both with three films under their belt, have different, but equally necessary cinematic perspectives that open up the conversation about what it means to love and be loved, and about what it looks like to evolve as emotional creatures in an anti-emotional modern world that defines "progress" in technological terms rather than psychological. Along with Wes Anderson & Terrence Malick, their films express something of what it means to confront death & vulnerability as the means to reconcile our inherent brokenness in relationship to each other, and in relationship to God.