Friday, July 18, 2008

Some Questions on Sexuality and Theology

I once heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sum up his vision for what religious life could be when he defined Christianity in the following eight words: ‘God’s love in Jesus Christ is never exhausted’. As the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth conference prepares to meet it seems that this is a far cry from the dehumanizing language used recently by figures in church and politics alike, in interventions about theology and sexuality.

I think we’re missing the point. Religious people have developed a reputation for prudery and sexual repression, while the iconic images of sexuality in gossip magazines, television and other media rely far too much on simplistic notions of beauty, and the promotion of hedonism. Simply put, religious people aren’t supposed to be enjoying sex, while everyone else is supposed to be having it all the time.

But I think it goes even deeper than this – lots of people (and I count myself among them) struggle to see life itself as a gift freely given, with endless possibilities. Religion and secular ideology both often seem to trap people in a mindset of feeling unworthy of what some people call God’s love, and what might also be helpfully termed self-acceptance. Yet many of the important figures who shaped religious history seemed better at taking life for what it is than we are today; Martin Luther, who said ‘love God, and sin boldly’; St Augustine who preceded this with the parallel thought ‘love God and do what you want’; earlier still was Jesus, whose promise to his followers that they might have the most abundant life possible finds only a hollow echo in so much of religious life today.

So, where does this leave us? Well, as one Church of England priest said this week, I think that Christianity – my tradition - needs to get over its obsession with respectability. If we want to talk about theology and sexual orientation we should stop defining people exclusively in terms of their sexuality, we should really listen to the stories of people whose lives are the subject of the current theological debates, and we should spend at least as much time actively speaking out against homophobic attacks and replacing homophobic language with words and actions that respect people’s dignity. We need to recognize that the history of religious and political institutions alike includes changing their positions on a range of important issues – from slavery to race to gender. And maybe ultimately we need to take the risk of believing that a faith defined by the notion that God’s love is never exhausted might actually have something new to say to us about human relationships.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

hancock - with spoilers, not that it matters

so, here's what might have happened. some time ago, a coupla guys sat down to write the treatment for a new superhero movie. one of them had a pretty decent pedigree, having put together the scripts for about thirty x-files episodes; the other was newer to the task, but had proven his chops in the composition of one of the few jet li movies to manifest a grasp of film grammar - 'fearless' (not the fantastic peter weir-jeff bridges existential work of 1993, which if you haven't seen you should stop reading this and rent straight away). the idea goes something like this: let's do a movie about a superhero that looks a little different from the rest. let's do a movie about a superhero who doesn't know where he came from, or why he's here. let's do a movie about a superhero who wakes up regularly drunk and depressed, and causes mayhem every time he tries to save someone; leaving a trail of metallic wreckage throughout the urban landscape familiar from superbatspiderxmen movies of the past. let's make him unique: an unpopular superhero. let's put him on the receiving end of anger from the public; and in need of some redemption. let's mix things up a bit by making his only friend - in this case a p.r. consultant - married to a beautiful woman who feels a little strange around our protagonist. let's make the revelation at the centre of our story be that this superhero is the most truly tragic superhero in movie history. let's make him a lonely amnesiac who has been suffering a crisis of identity for over eighty years; and let's make the beautiful woman his wife of several thousand years, who, like him, does not age because she cannot. she has left him alone because - in a twist that is potentially up there with 'the usual suspects', 'the crying game' and 'taxi driver' - she is his superhero pair, and they have discovered that even though they love each other, when they are in physical proximity, their powers weaken, and they are vulnerable to attack. let's end the story with both of them nearly dead at the hands of their enemy, and deciding to part in order to save each other. sure, we can start the tale with a little humour, a little amusement, a little dance with the audience; but the point of this story is to pull our hero out of his lackadaisacal jokey reverie. the first half of the movie is 'mystery men' meets 'the long weekend' or 'days of wine and roses', and the second half is the secret love child of 'unbreakable' and the david banner full-of-pathos parts of 'the incredible hulk'. in that regard, it will be a rare thing: a mainstream hollywood movie that manages to be both entertaining and artful, dramatic and intelligent; honest about its own terms.
alas the realisation misses the mark - 'hancock' coulda been a contender, but ... have a listen to the film talk podcast for more on 'hancock' and other movie lore

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'The Visitor'

On the film podcast that I co-host with Jett Loe, we haven’t invested a lot of time in the ongoing conversation discussing smaller, independent-style movies; there’s no agenda there - it just happens that way. But we will be talking about 'The Visitor', after I saw it last week. It deserves serious attention.

In keeping with our policy of not discussing the film in advance of the show, I’ll have to keep my deeper opinions to myself for now; but I think I can get away with this: ‘The Visitor’ deserves your time because it is a serious attempt at telling a story about people who feel real, and who encounter real problems and hopes (grief, the possibility of new friendship, the tortuous negotiation of the US immigration system, learning to play the djembe); some people may say that one of the reasons they don't consider contemporary US ‘indie’ drama to be a source of enthusiasm is that these films are rarely told with visual flair, and in that regard, why not just make them into plays or novels? And I think that is often right. But Tom McCarthy, whose previous film is the utterly beguiling ‘The Station Agent’, knows how to frame human beings talking, and while what’s in the physical image is important, I think that a movie that conveys heart but may lack the photographic nuance of Henri Cartier-Bresson (or Henri Alekan, or Vilmos Zsigmond, or Robert Elswit) might still end up being the most engaging film I’ve seen all year.

Monday, July 14, 2008

herbie hancock's 'river'/ ry cooder's 'i, flathead'

i rarely write about music here, partly because i don't feel qualified to do so, and mostly because i struggle to capture the meaning of sounds in words, but i've been so touched by two new(ish) albums over the past fornight that i had to mention them. herbie hancock's 'river' - a love letter to joni mitchell from the jazz pianist whose playing can be evoked but not circumscribed by images of eating chocolate, or lying in a hot salt spa, of breathing deeply on a balcony balmy night, or maybe just the words 'it's bloody amazing', and ry cooder's 'i, flathead' - an acclamation of youthful days when the most exciting thing in the world was driving a cool car and trying to get a cute girl to catch your eye ... hancock's music drove me home last night; cooder's made me think. i'm going to stop writing and listen to corinne bailey rae sing 'river', and leave you with the thought for the day i wrote for radio ulster last week.

"You know when you hear a wonderful piece of music for the first time, and it captures your attention so much that you just have to hear it again straight away? Last week it happened to me when I heard a new song by Ry Cooder, the slide guitarist and facilitator of the amazing band of elderly Cubans, the Buena Vista Social Club. Cooder has a new album out with the impossibly brilliant title ‘I, Flathead’, an older man’s love songs to the feeling of being young, and learning the romance of driving a really cool car.

The album is about the exuberant exhiliration of living completely free, which a friend of mine likes to describe as dancing like no-one’s watching. When you apply this idea to the rest of life – to the choices we make every day, from what to eat to what route to take to work, to who to live with, and what to do with the years we have on earth, it’s a useful corrective to the monotonous patterns many of us seem stuck in.

Research shows that when you ask elderly people about their regrets, they tend to agree that if they had it over again, they would take more risks. They might choose a different career path with less financial security because it would be more psychologically rewarding. They might take the trip they always avoided because they didn’t speak the local language. They might, as Shakespeare has Edgar say in ‘King Lear’, ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.

What would it mean to follow this advice, and ‘dance like no-one’s watching’? Some of us today need to be reminded that no matter what the circumstances of our lives, what has happened to us, or how we have fallen short of our own ambitions or values, we still have freedom to choose to get back in the game. We can take the risk we’ve always avoided. Today might be the day that someone listening picks up the phone and calls an old lover, who turns out to have been waiting for years to hear from them; or someone else quits the job that deadens their soul, and pursues the creative dream that has lain dormant since they were a teenager; or someone else decides to stop allowing the pain of past trauma to prevent them living a life where the only limit is their own vision of the possible.

Today, someone’s going to dance like no-one’s watching, someone’s going to speak what they feel, not what they ought to say, someone’s going to get back in the game – it doesn’t matter which metaphor you use: but if today is a day for someone to free themselves from whatever unnecessary restrictions they have allowed to hold them back, why shouldn’t that someone be you?"