#firstimefriday Bill Murray and Embracing The Transcendence Of The Ordinary

In the dark, strange days after 9/11, when the skies over London were still eerily empty of the planes that would on a normal day noisily criss-cross their white plumes overhead, a story spread across the city. There were, it turned out, variations on it, but it went something like this. A Muslim man had unknowingly dropped his obviously full wallet on public transport somewhere in the city; a fellow passenger saw this, picked up the wallet and handed it to its owner. He was very grateful, and as he thanked the person in question, he would lean forward and whisper to him or her “Stay out of [names part of London] on [names a day/date].”

It’s a classic urban myth; it plays on fear and prejudice; it’s always ‘a friend’ or a friend of a friend’ to whom it happened; the actual people involved are always just one remove away. These myths spread like wildfire across cities – even before the internet and social media were in wide use – and become accepted truths. Of course, these days one can find few people who actually believed this myth; but back in the day when most of us heard it most of us believed it, at least for a few minutes. For some of us, such stories become a prism through which we view an issue; the more light-hearted ones become shared jokes which bind groups together. In many cases the truthfulness of these myths isn’t what’s most important; it’s what they mean at a deeper level that matters, the way they shape us and define our views of people or things. Urban myths are in that respect a close relative of what we now call fake news.

Bill Murray is an actor around whom a series of what appear to be urban myths have grown up, and the 70 minute documentary The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man  (available on Netflix in some countries) is the story of a film-maker trying to get to the bottom of them, establish their truthfulness and meaning. It turns out that the myths around Bill Murray are mostly true – he really did turn up to a student party and do the washing up; he did join the engagement photo-shoot of a random couple; he did play kickball with some people in a park that one time; he did turn up at a bar and start serving drinks behind it.

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On they go. The documentary is intoxicatingly cheerful; it’s the good-natured story of a global star, blessed with magical comic timing, who has appeared in some of our best-loved movies, doing nice things for ordinary people. What does it all mean, the film-maker wants to know?

I remember Bono once being quoted as saying ‘I see fame as a calling’. It’s one of those Bono-isms that winds a lot of people up: I understand that, but I couldn’t help thinking of those words when I was watching this film. It seems that Bill Murray sees fame in a similar way; if one has this ridiculous thing called a celebrity, one might as well do something useful with it, the logic goes. Bono takes that in one direction; Bill Murray in another. The roots of this seem to be in his improvisational comedy background; as the film explains, in improv the artist has to say ‘yes, and … ‘ then move further down the road. Fear must drive you to new things in improv, not weigh one down the way it does so many of us. He has no entourage to bring with him, no PR people to spin. He’s just himself, improvising outside the performance space.

What’s interesting is what this all means to the people Murray meets. One of his directors says ‘he shows up not to take over, but to be present’. One person who testified to one myth’s truthfulness first-hand said ‘He made feel like a bigger person than I am … I’m not part of his story, he’s part of my story.’ Another says ‘By action, if not by word, he’s teaching us how to live.’ It’s an invitation not to live on autopilot, but rather to live wherever the wind blows.

For the follower of Jesus, this all sounds a little like Jesus speaking of how the Holy Spirit, the essence of God, guides us and works. It sounds a lot like an invitation to embrace the opportunity to see transcendence and holiness and opportunity in the ordinary stuff of the day to day, for ourselves and for those standing in queues with us, at the next table, in the car beside us. What if we Jesus followers saw those moments as chances to bring transcendence to others and ourselves in those ordinary moments; what if we did so in such a way so as to not draw attention to ourselves with a lecture or sermon or the like? But something more simple – quietly paying for someone else’s coffee, for example.

I don’t know how all this works. Bill Murray is no Jesus – a quick read around online relates that many have found him hard to work with and that one ex-wife mentioned abuse and addiction as a cause for her seeking divorce (though these claims were later withdrawn). In these true myths, is Murray somehow seeking atonement for all that too? We can but guess. But it all seems to be the sort of gentle, grace-giving, enlightening thing Jesus to which Jesus might call us.

#firstimefriday John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum The World Is A Better Place For Having Keanu Back On Centre Stage

I’m old enough to remember when it was cool and knowing to slag off Keanu. ‘He’s going to play someone with no brain you say [Johnny Mnemonic]? How appropriate?”. How we laughed! I hope I’m also old enough to know better now. Of course, Keanu has been in his share of bad films and has been bad in a few films too. A glance through his back catalogue will also show how many damn good movies he’s been in. As I heard one critic put it recently, his strength doesn’t lie with his voice so much as it does with his body. And your body is a big part of the actor’s trade.

We come now to the third John Wick movie, a franchise that has put Keanu centre stage in the film-goers’ consciousness once more. I think the world is a better place for that. This is a series of films in which Keanu channels grief and its attendant stages – anger, denial, bargaining – through the tightly wound coil of his body, inflicting pain on anyone who crosses his path. By the end of this film, the whole set of three has only covered a few weeks of narrative at most. This is a man whose grief and his reaction to it is leading him further and further down the rabbit hole.

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It’s utterly relentless, breathlessly entertaining. You feel every bone snap and every shattered pane of glass deep in your bones; there’s wit laced with the violence too. Death by horse, death by dog, death by book (carefully placed back on the shelf in the right place afterwards, naturally). The world of assassins with a moral code is expanded and doesn’t make sense, but somehow that’s all part of the fun. Asia Kate Dillon is particularly good as the person who makes seemingly arbitrary decisions as to what’s going on on behalf of the ever invisible High Table. There’s a staggering sequence on motorbikes that I would have liked to have lasted longer. There’s a direct quote from The Matrix, and several other cinematic nods besides. And there’s neon. So much neon.

It’s balletic, stylised violence by way of John Woo and The Raid films; the sort of thing Tarantino reached for in Kill Bill but never found as conclusively as he seemed to think he had. It’s absurd, but deliriously entertaining – if two hours of more or less relentless fighting and killing is what you’re after. It’s violence so choreographed as to not be exploitative; this is unreal violence as a spectator sport, as performance art. A man – Keanu – and others, bending bodies to their will, in service of a story and characters you come to love almost despite yourself.

It’s hard to imagine why you’d see this film if you didn’t know what to expect; for me, it was slightly weaker than Chapter 2, which I enjoyed more than the first film. Either way, this is one just to relax and go with. The world is a better place for having Keanu back in big films on the big screen, channelling grief and anger through a body that is cartoonishly unlikely to break. Long may this wick burn.

#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

Have you ever watched someone you love barrel headlong into a potential life-ruining mistake and been powerless to do anything about it? If you have, you’ll know it’s an excruciating experience. Part of love and leadership and mentoring and training, of course, is allowing people to make mistakes and be there to pick them up afterwards, help them put themselves back together and make sure everything is manageable afterwards. As a parent, and as someone who has spent my whole working life thus far working with people, I spend a lot of time watching people I have varying degrees of responsibility for make mistakes and have to live with the consequences. Often I see the mistakes coming, and I’m a powerless to stop them – even if I’ve tried my best to help them see the potential consequences. It’s a strange, cringing, disempowering experience.

That’s what floated around my mind as I watched 2018’s American Animals, an at once thrilling and cringe-inducing heist-movie and documentary. It tells the true story of some bored young men in Kentucky, some of them college students, who tried to inject excitement in to their lives by attempting to steal some immensely valuable books; as the story is told, the drama is intercut with footage of the real people involved – the young men, parents and a few others, retelling their story, and their tragic, life-ruining mistakes.

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The young men’s arrogance and self-importance seems staggering at times; the film follows some of the classic tropes of a heist movie, so when we see them assigning and arguing over the code names ‘Mr Pink’ and ‘Mr Brown’, and so on, in exactly the same way as Reservoir Dogs, we can only assume it’s a satirical invention of the film-maker. As one of the characters points out, that’s a film that didn’t end well for anyone involved. It’s jaw-dropping to discover, however, that this is no fictionalisation. They really did that; and we wonder that they ever thought they would do this.

The film builds relentlessly to the actual heist; one or two of the characters reflecting on the chances they had to walk away, but never took. But they were bored – so very bored with what they had, with what lay ahead of them and what was expected of them – that they felt this was something they had to do. As one of them says: “I realised I had to make something happen on my own.“; as another says to an authority figure “This whole place [college] and goddamned town is a disappointment.

So with the arrogant naivety of the young, the heist comes along, a lengthy sequence which, along with its aftermath, is as thrilling as it is painful and sometimes absurdly funny to watch. You’re watching people ruin their lives – and that of others – for a thrill, an experience, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Have they learned anything by the end? That’s unclear – but they’re certainly regretful.

It’s easy to criticise these young men; and they deserve it, of course. But we need a word of caution to ourselves. How many of us have ever placed expectations on ourselves or others, not allowing the people carrying those expectations to show doubt, fear, weakness or a desire to take a different path? These young men are crushed by the apparent safety and predictability of middle-class suburban niceness and predictability; there seems to be no-one, no parent, no teacher, no coach, no pastor, no friend to whom they can express doubt or a hint of darkness in themselves. No one will hear they want to do or be something or someone else. No one who will listen to their hints of darkness and rob that darkness of its power by confessing ‘Me as well’, before it erupts as it does in to something all together more dangerous.

Wanting to have it all together, to be seen to be becoming or to actually be ‘a success’ (as much for our children as ourselves) can kill people. Maybe it can literally kill them; or maybe just kill the light and life in them until they whither away in to quiet safety, never rocking a boat that may be heading for an iceberg. Churches are rife with it; schools; universities; and especially the crushingly predictable environments of polite white-collar jobs that keep everyone safe but many unsatisfied.

It’s ironic especially to find such crushing safety and hidden darkness in churches and Christ-followers; one of the few qualifications for following Jesus is to admit our helplessness over our own darknesses. Church communities should, then, be places where people know they’re all broken and can talk about our brokenness with one another; even, or especially, the pastor, But so often they’re not, despite a prayer of confession being a regular feature of many worship services, true weakness and darkness is rarely confessed by any  – and then when a pastor or a church member truly crashes or fails, there’s wide-spread shock and precious little grace to welcome back.

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Photo by Vincent Chin on Unsplash

 

On their album reflecting on the ennui and predictability of suburban life (The Suburbs), Arcade Fire sang “I need the darkness/Someone please cut the light.” It’s a plea to shut off the painful predictability of the suburban glow of artificial light, the better to see the stunning natural light of the stars against the night sky. It’s also a cry for something more; there’s darkness in me. Hear it, and own it, before it consumes me. What would have happened to these young men in American Animals if they – or someone around them – had the strength to allow them to voice their darkness and temptations, and rob them of their power? What would happen to you, our churches, to me, to our pastors, if we allowed confessions of weakness and fragility before they overwhelmed us? Are we strong enough to see we’re all jars of clay?

Such questions are almost as hard to ask as they are to answer. Perhaps, however, in voicing them together we will find some the light we need.

#firsttimefriday Avengers: Endgame … Flawed, But Unforgettable

Has a mass-market blockbuster ever opened on such a downer as this one? Infinity War’s ending made anything else impossible, of course, but what one expects from such a major movie is not an hour or so of a whole set of characters learning to live with loss and grief. It’s to the movie’s immense credit that this is sustained for so long, and so well handled to the extent that the occasional flashes of Marvel humour in that segment of the film don’t seem out of place. Occasionally we pan out to the big picture and global scale of the loss. One character saying “I miss the Mets” brings you up short; so many have died that, even 5 years later, professional sports can not function. Another powerful moment is a scene that takes in a monument bearing the names of some of The Vanished – the monument seems endless.

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As well as this is handled, this wasn’t my major concern ahead of the film. That revolved around what Endgame was going to do about the overwhelming loss of Infinity War. Science-fiction/fantasy stories run in to trouble, stretching credibility even in terms of their own worlds (which is the only credibility that really matters), when they get out of a narrative tight spot or emotional downbeat by pressing some kind of metaphorical ‘reset button’; what happened didn’t really happen, or is just undone. I feared even further when the proposed solution in Endgame started to be unpacked. In a manner of speaking, I was right to worry about this. A metaphorical reset button is pressed, but it’s done in a deft way; the journey to that point is fraught with real loss that can’t be undone, not to mention a bravura trip back through various points in some of the movies that have bought to this point, with scenes replayed from new angles (to say much more would be to risk too much of a spoiler). Both of these choices are well handled; as ever, this series mostly manages the dance between humour and sadness with great dexterity.

The major loss of the film was genuinely moving; other losses, less so. When you have a series of films that has (so far) lasted 11 years and 21 films, and introduced (according to Wikipedia) 226 characters, there’s only so much attachment one can build up to many of them. Plus I’m old, and I forget things. This is especially so in one key plot strand that ends with 2 characters having to resolve which of them will sacrifice for the other. It’s a powerful moment, but to be honest I just didn’t care enough about them to really be moved by what could have been a landmark moment.

Much has been made in the last year or so of Marvel introducing its first film led by a black character (the excellent Black Panther) and a woman (the good but not outstanding Captain Marvel); these were indeed significant cultural moments. Endgame undercuts them somewhat by disappointingly sidelining them both for most of the film; admittedly, in the case of Captain Marvel at least, this may be as much to do with working out a reason for her immense powers not to be the solution to every problem. Even so, it doesn’t really work for me; in the movie’s defence in this regard, however, my 10-year old, previously superhero averse, daughter sat through it all without a toilet break or complaint not once, but twice, because “The girls kick butt!”; which is certainly true of some less central female characters.

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Two performances stand out for me: Josh Brolin as Thanos is brilliant, managing to imbue such a cosmic villain with pathos. Paul Rudd (Ant Man) is, for me, one of the least appreciated parts of the MCU, and his performance is superb here; great comic moments, and an occasional cypher for the more casual viewer who needs to be caught up to events. In addition, any moment in which Taika Waititi gets to give voice to his flawless comic timing as the voice of Korg is a good one; more of that, please.

It’s striking how little action there is for such a film; to be honest, this strained the running time for me. I think the middle third could have been contracted a little; it lagged at times. But I seem to be in a minority on that, as my daughter testifies above. For me it also suffers a little from ‘Return Of The King’ syndrome; there were several occasions when I thought it had finished (and wanted it to end), but another coda came along. Yes, there are a lot of character arcs to tie up; but this is a film where neither the big picture nor micro narrative arcs are entirely smooth or neat, and the last 30 minutes or so dragged. What should have been a touching final scene for one character (and indeed the film) felt like blessed relief; other narrative developments earlier in the film were all but accompanied with a knowing nod to camera. The latter would at least have felt more in tune with the series’ tone. The climactic battle isn’t handled brilliantly either; there’s too much going on with too many for me to really keep track of what’s happening; a common fault of superhero films (Black Panther being one of the notable exceptions). I’m thinking that in this regard the makers could have learned from the flawless execution of the massed battles in the Lord of The Rings films.

These are small complaints in context. We do need to take a moment to acknowledge the Marvel achievement here; when the first Iron Man movie kicked this all off 11 years ago, none of us really knew what would happen. None of us expected what has transpired; a multi-stranded, complex, overlapping set of blockbusters that (largely) standalone for the causal viewer, bring in new fans with no loyalty to the comic books (like me) and serve the hardcore fans also. To reach this point of the project and to do so as one of the biggest films of all time, with the confidence to inflict real loss on its characters and audience, is a unique cinematic achievement which, for all the faults in this film or any others in the series, is something likely to never be equalled. If anyone ever says again that modern attention spans are too short and people don’t really like complex stories any more, that conversation can be ended with the sample of the Marvel films (and Game of Thrones); all we need is characters we care about, and we remain capable of following even the most complex of plots. Remember these films are serious hits amongst people much younger than me, with a far greater grasp of the narrative complexities spread over all the films. In that respect little has changed since story-telling began.

There are themes and ideas to mine from this movies, and all that’s gone before. Some of them will sit long in the mind, some of them give merely a fleeting suggestion. In all honesty, to really mine and understand those I’ll need to revisit them all over a more condensed period of time; Endgame is certainly a film that you can enjoy with a relatively limited engagement of the preceding films, but the experience will be all the richer in relation to the viewer’s familiarity with the breadth of the context. For now, we come to an end that is also a rest, and a pause. We all need to take a breath.

#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).

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It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

#firsttimefriday John Wick: Chapter 2

Sorry it’s late. Kids and stuff.

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There’s not much to say about John Wick: Chapter 2; it’s everything I needed it be when I couldn’t get to see Avengers: Endgame because an extra kid turned up so I gave up my ticket. I enjoyed this more than the first film; it’s a deliciously, deliriously entertaining two hour long gun fight set (with occasional other stuff) in the bizarre nether world of hitmen with a code of honour. Keanu Reeves is a brilliant tightly wound coil of grief-fuelled anger. Very violent, of course, but I suspect you knew that. Sometimes, you just want to drink beer, eat Mexican food and watch Keanu shoot people with stylised direction.

#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.

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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.