#haveseenmonday Brilliance but little wisdom in Reservoir Dogs

When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.

Reservoir dogs

During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.

Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.

It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.

What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.

#firstimefriday: What Beyoncé, the Boss and Taylor Swift might have to teach church leaders about vulnerability

“He likes you because you’re really … real.” This was said to me about 20 years ago, not long before or after I was ordained to ministry in the Anglican church. I’d been at some party with family, and my brother-in-law fed the comment back to me about a non-Christian friend of his. It might seem like an odd turn of phrase, but it’s meant positively. He had expected a priest to be distant, removed, somehow inaccessible. He seemed to appreciate sharing a beer with a priest at a party, shouting a conversation over the loud (almost certainly Britpop) music, about football, life, death and other things. It’s a phrase and an idea that has kept coming back to me at different points over the last 20 years or so. How ‘real’ am I supposed to be? How vulnerable? How much of myself do I share in sermon and other ministry? How should I dress? Some people seem to think pastors are battery-farmed; should we be organic? Free-range?

Which brings me to this week’s #firsttimefriday (the viral sensation where I write about films I’ve seen for the first time). 3 films this week. Specifically, Netflix’s trio of exclusive concert films released over the last 6 months or so – Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Yes, dear reader; I watched all 3 of them in the space of 24 hours. Unashamedly, I had a blast.

erin-biafore-660296-unsplash

Photo by Erin Biafore on Unsplash

On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Springsteen’s is one of his nights of residency at a Broadway theatre; him and an acoustic guitar and occasionally a piano. He gives a long, rambling, funny, moving spoken word autobiographical introduction to a song; which he then plays. It’s stark, intimate, brilliant and compulsively vulnerable; the nature of the show, and the idea of a long residency of Broadway shows, seems to be quite unlike anything such an artist has attempted before. He’s in his late 60’s, and never sounded better. The Taylor Swift film is at the other end of the live music spectrum. A solo female pop star, on the closing night of her tour, in her home territory of Texas. Her music is the sort I would have dismissed; but now I have a 10-year old daughter and I’m forced to pay attention. I don’t think Swift has the greatest voice, but when she gets a song right, she gets it very right. Some of her best songs are borderline perfect pop songs, with a gift for melody and lyric-writing that many artists would sell their souls for. She also shows an admirable ability to challenge herself musically, flitting between genres. The show filmed here is the classic big pop production; about a million costume changes; big screen videos; a band that manages to keep up (although it took me most of the film for me to realise that the keyboard player was not actually in a dark underground lair). It’s not a brilliantly shot or directed film; but you get a sense of what Taylor Swift means to her fans; and as I said, at her best the songs are irresistable. Then we come to Beyoncé’s film, Homecoming; a film of her already legendary show at American music festival Coachella in 2018. It’s frankly staggering. Laced with behind the scenes footage of rehearsals – it took 8 months to rehearse for one show  – this is an adrenalised jet pack of energy, celebration and empowerment that leads to an inevitable sense that this show has changed something in the air. Beyoncé’s voice could be one of the natural wonders of the world; if weaponised, it could cause the planet to spin off its axis or bring about world peace. Or both. She’s backed by a brilliant band of percussionists and brass instrument players in a pyramid-shaped bleachers behind her; she also has a troupe of frankly astonishing dancers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and manages one head-spinning visual trick which convinces you her costume is magically changing colour (it isn’t – Google it). 

Which of these you enjoy the most is really down to what your musical poison is. But I would suggest giving all three a go, the better to get a sense of how different artists and types of music function live. What links the three is, for me, a sense of what is real – and searching to make that available. On the face of it, Springsteen’s performance is the most ‘real’ because … well, he tells his story, there’s no big production. But from early on, Springsteen is keen to point out that, in his words, he’s fraud; he’s built his career on a magic trick. He’s seen as the great poet of the American working-class male, and yet he’s never worked a day in a factory. So is he really a fraud? I would argue not. In the story-telling, artistic business, truth is rarely literal. Springsteen connects because people see themselves in his songs. Take The Rising, a song and album written and released as a response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. The title track is performed here; written from the point of view of a firefighter killed in the attempt to rescue people inside the Twin Towers. Clearly Springsteen hasn’t experienced this; but is it truthful? Listen to it here, and judge for yourself.  

Taylor Swift’s show is covered in performance and production, so she can’t be truthful, right? Well, not so fast. At one point she says to the crowd that what connects them all is that ‘we all like the feeling of something real’. This is, of course, to an extent part of the performance. But not completely. Listen to Shake It Off or Blank Space; watch a young girl respond to them, and you start to see that along with the melody and pop sensibilities there’s an invitation to something truthful and in some songs, a neat subversion of the expectations layered on women. If she’s a fraud, then so is Springsteen. But they’re both connecting with people who find something real in them both.

So to Beyoncé. In part this concert was significant even before it happened; the first black woman to headline one of America’s biggest festivals. But in conception and performance, from the way cultural tropes and traditions are appropriated in to the show, to the choreography and musical arrangements, to the songs themselves, everything is about celebrating black (female) American culture in the days a white supremacist sits in the White House. At one point I found myself thinking that some of the dancers looked to be far more ‘normal’ and varied body shapes than I am used to seeing on a stage like this; then in one of the interludes we hear Beyoncé say ‘I want every person who has ever been dismissed because of how they look to feel like they’re on that stage.’ For all the dazzling production, that’s real; I found it so refreshing to see people with normal bodies on stage. Why does it all matter? Because here, on one of the biggest stages in the nation, a black woman was taking control and making things bend to her will; not being who people think a black woman should be. Her lyrics and choreography are at times explicitly sexual; she is often criticised for this (usually by white men) and told she can’t therefore be a feminist. Which, as far as I can tell, is to miss the point. For myself, I didn’t find it erotic; the whole show was just a joyous, intoxicating sense of someone being only who she wants be, not defining herself by what others tell her that her sexuality, her politics, her anger, her relationships, her art should be. Take the remarkable Formation (with ‘adult’ lyrics), a highlight of the show for an example.

beychella

All three of these concert films present us with performers who are in different ways a layered in artifice and production; yet each of them are their own kind of ‘real’, connecting with people who see themselves in the show in front of them. Back to being a real pastor; what do people want in pastor? In my experience, it’s someone who’s both real and yet not; strong and weak; vulnerable and strong. I don’t really have an answer; I do know that when I am open with my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some people are helped, and some are troubled. In recent weeks I have done some of my preaching from a sitting position due to elevated levels of my chronic pain, and it changes something in the room. No doubt it’s good for some, not so good for others, neutral for still more. Ultimately, our example is one who is profoundly real; who takes on flesh and moves in to the neighbourhood, as one New Testament translation puts it, that God may have a body that sweats and bleeds and smells and everything else normal human bodies do. I’m no Jesus, and neither is any other pastor; and whilst there must be an appropriate awareness of context and self-care of keeping some things for just a few to know, the example of Jesus – and these 3 performers – is to allow myself to be seen for who I am, not project a version of who I’m not or would like to be.

For me that involves little in the way of singing, absolutely no dancing, very few costume changes; but the simple reminder that I am here to help people Jesus, and that it’s promised that happens best through weaknesses rather than strengths and successes. It’s likely to attract far fewer crowds and rather less money; but the ripples will run longer and further and deeper, and are gloriously independent of my skills and abilities.

Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

amy adams

A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while.