Reflections on ‘Blue Jasmine’

Amid all of the vampire flicks and light comedies in the popular sphere a rising vogue in the blockbuster circuit is for movies about class division and conflicts writ large portrayed in mostly epic terms (Hunger Games, Elysium, Les Miserables). Most of these create a comfortable distance from an admittedly uncomfortable subject by placing the narrative in a fanciful past or a speculative future. By contrast one exceptional film that’s totally apart from the realm of high tech spectacle manages to address the subject by painting a sensitive and tragic portrait of a single individual’s descent from the heights of the social register to the depths of alienation and despair. The film is Blue Jasmine, a brilliant collaboration between one of America’s greatest living storytellers and one of the world’s best actresses. All through his career as writer and director, Woody Allen’s subjects have revolved around the delusional nature of middle class life. His main characters wander through their days in bewilderment, somewhat aware of their disconnect from the reality of their situations, trying valiantly to maintain an appearance of normality. Their general failure in this regard is, in a majority of his films the source for comedy. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp these characters navigate a very fine line that divides farce from tragedy. As the Tramp in The Gold Rusis forced to eat his shoes and acts as if he is dining on fine cuisine, Allen’s creatures stumble through their lives amusing us with a seeming obliviousness to the true nature of their condition.
In Blue Jasmine Allen teases us repeatedly with the expectations of farce, setting up situations that are ripe for expression as conventional comedy. His character Jasmine, married to a wealthy investment banker (think Bernard Madoff) who has been prosecuted and jailed for fraud, has fallen from the highest levels of New York Society and is now penniless. She moves in with her adopted sister Ginger in San Francisco to find a way to make an honest living. She finds herself in a world that’s entirely foreign to her, one in which people have to struggle with paying the bills and one in which the skills that served her in high society are totally useless and even counter productive. Along the way she’s forced to confront not only the consequences of her own actions on other people’s lives but the ordinary situations faced by working women every day (like sexual harassment and having to learn computer skills). The narrative is interjected with a series of flashbacks that reveal in successive stages, like the peeling of an onion, the depths and the consequences of her self-deception. 
Although the situation is ripe for comedy, here Woody Allen chooses to bring us face to face with the ramifications of our own social blindness. Through these characters he shows us the deep gulf between a world of arrogant wealth and the hard edged realities faced by the working class. Along the way he tempts us with the fairytale promise of unrealistic expectations and then he brings us home to the realities of both love and betrayal. With deep familiarity and sensitivity he shows us both sides of the world, and this places Blue Jasmine in a class with some of the most penetrating literature of class and culture. I’m thinking of Tolstoy’s Anna KareninaEdith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Woody Allen’s films are essentially novels and in Blue Jasmine I think he’s achieved the maturity of an enduring classic that fully represents the anxieties and polarities of the time in which we presently live.   
Cate Blanchett is cast in the role of Jasmine and displays an extraordinary range of tone and expression as she veers from one state to another in her journey from riches to rags. This is perhaps the most deeply realized and complex characters in a Woody Allen film and few could have carried it off as convincingly and even sympathetically as Ms. Blanchett. In terms of understanding the class and culture divide at the center of the narrative I was reminded of the segment ‘Cousins’ she performs in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, where she plays two characters in an uncomfortable conversation, one a successful actress and socialite, the other an envious underachiever. It could have been an audition for the role either of Jasmine or Ginger. The cast includes Sally Hawkins as Ginger, Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s conman husband, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s first husband and Bobby Cannavale as her current boyfriend Chili. All are excellent foils for the emotional gyrations of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine which deserves recognition as one of cinema’s great performances. 

We Have Been Assimilated

Summary: Two artifacts of mass media, launched one after another more than four decades gone: Star Trek in 1967 and The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, enjoy continued popularity in this summer’s blockbuster roster. They embody two contradictory poles in America’s current and ongoing psychic dilemma. On one hand is our love affair with technology (and progress) and our earnest desire to merge ourselves with it. On the other is a mortal fear that we will lose our individuality and identity to the vast machinery of the faceless collective. 


“…in fact, science fiction in this sense is no longer anywhere, and it is everywhere…”   – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”  – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2


Americans are famous for talking and arguing about something they call freedom. What we actually mean most of the time is control. We have this obsessive need to be in control of our lives all the way to the moment of death and hopefully beyond and this we manage, at least in a virtual sense, through our fetishistic approach to technology. Oddly, the concept of control and that of freedom are opposing functions in the real world, and our obsession with technology has lead us to a world where the human animal is trained to serve the machine rather than the other way around.  

I’m a dweller in cities, as most of us are. Cities are the human container. While the ‘natural’ realm functions as a place of refuge and renewal, much like an elaborately predictable theme park, the real wilderness is a function of cities, where defined boundaries and limited visibility foster an environment filled with mystery. There the human animal, aware that control is nothing but illusion, continually strains against the limits of the maze with unpredictable explosions of novelty. 

Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ to describe the environment created by electronic telecommunication that would render physical distance less relevant to our interactions than tribal affinity. What has evolved isn’t really a village at all, anymore than Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo are villages. The Internet is an urban space, differentiated into diverse neighborhoods, each with their respective gangs, territories and exclusive languages. 

The political dialogue going on these days amounts to a gang fight between factions defending opposing versions of the past. We hear overheated rhetoric espousing theoretical positions over hypothetical circumstances while little effective action is taken in the present. Most of us aren’t asked to contribute to solutions, only to take sides. While politics becomes a spectator sport an ongoing revolutions takes place in realms of culture, design and the arts. 

When we step away from the political chatter we see that nothing remains static and everything evolves. While we point accusing fingers at one another every new idea and innovation alters our environment and the way we live. While we fight wars over race and religion the definition of what it means to be human is undergoing constant change. When we address our problems in terms of left and right, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, we confuse symptoms with the disease. While we grow more and more enmeshed in a world where every human interaction is mediated through machines, a deep sense of unease infects the whole world. Our greatest fear is that what defines us as individuals with a sense of purpose is being threatened by something outside of ourselves. All of our tradition, religion, and moral and ethical behavior is called into question by the requirements of advancing technologies. In the name of progress we reduce our world to chaotic wreckage made up of conflicting slogans and unsubstantiated beliefs.

Among these voices and artifacts we roam like refugees in a junkyard of found objects. When we look with eyes wide open we find that the most pressing existential questions are addressed in the mediums in which we most urgently look for escape. In unguarded moments, when listening to music or viewing movies and television we are opened to novel possibilities. In the fanciful stories we tell to one another we find the most accurate reflection of the truth about where we are and where we may be heading. Our lives, after all, are made of stories.   

Like archeologists or anthropologists we dig to discover the truth in threads that weave through our fictions. In the dreamworld we step back from the dense layers of event and information constantly swirling around us in our waking life. There we may discover the designs of our future before bringing them to the light of day.


“…and now the machines are flying us.” – Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise


On the screen a group of actors sit in comfy looking chairs or stand facing a screen on which images of things taking place in the universe outside the room are projected. We journey with these characters through a series of moral and ethical dilemmas encountered as adventures that take place in virtual space. The boundaries of the “Final Frontier” extend beyond the screen we are watching to include the space in which we are watching it.

This is perfect television.  

It doesn’t matter that the sets and costumes are cheesy or obviously made of plywood and cardboard against painted backdrops, no more than it mattered to us as children playing with sticks in our own backyards. When the onscreen fantasy ends and we leave the room to continue in our lives we become the ‘away team’ proceeding on a mission into alien worlds. 

Those of us who’d grown up in big cities were accustomed to watching heroes sort out good and evil in the exotic landscapes of the western or the familiar perky environments of sitcoms. The heroes went up against the bad guys and those comedic moms and dads were almost always wise and good natured and calmly protective. While it was entertaining and provided models we could measure our own lives against, these still felt like somebody else’s lives and someone else’s adventures. 

Star Trek made us feel like we were part of the crew of the Enterprise, along for the ride. The show spoke in an imaginative language that dreamers could readily understand. Most important, it provided us with an organizing center from which we made sense of the confusing age we grew up in, where change came so fast that the world appeared always perched on the verge of chaos.    

The show made its initial run in 1967 and was cancelled after only one season. It was about ten years ahead of its time and couldn’t find a ready fit among the era’s cowboy dramas and family sitcoms. Of course, we who were ready for the future wouldn’t let it die, so we pounded on the studio doors until it was eventually brought back, again and again. Over forty years later the books, movies, comics and television series still feed a subculture that thrives across at least three generations. 

As the first television generation we rode a gigantic wave of innovation that began more than a century earlier, when the first photographic image was burned into a metal plate and our relationship to time and space was forever warped by the image. Or maybe the wave actually begins in the 13th century when the first factory looms were constructed, or maybe even earlier, when the first books were reproduced with moveable print. From those times machinery became increasingly the vehicle for our imaginations. We drew our dreams out of our heads and reproduced them to be cast out into the world.

Ever since there were storytellers we’ve used fiction to make sense of the waking world. Fiction takes a stream of events and gives them continuity in the form of narrative or plot. The fiction of Star Trek organized itself around our fondest dreams of progress in a time of raging conflict. In its fanciful world the issues of civil rights and foreign intervention were all located in the distant past. The crew of the Enterprise functioned seamlessly, like a hive of bees, totally self-contained in the belly of a huge machine. St. Augustine’s trinitarian scheme of memory, intellect and will was embodied in McCoy, Spock and Kirk. Their authority was unquestioned by the creator, Gene Rodenberry’s decree that there be no significant dissension amongst the crew. Like the branches of government the principal actors balanced one another and everyone knew their place and function (displayed by color coded uniforms) and problem solving capabilities. 

It now appears strange that a generation swept up in so much resistance to authority would accept and even embrace such a militaristic model of the perfect society. Perhaps it was our longing for order in a time of disorder. Still, it was a prophetic foreshadowing of the world in which we’ve come to live, where almost every activity is mediated through technology and the dictates of the machine reshapes every aspect of our lives. One almost has to wonder if it was the machine itself that was dreaming.

While Star Trek embodied our living room love affair with technology, another parallel genre emerged at the same moment in the dark chthonic realm of the midnight drive-in. It concretized our deepest dread of a dystopian future, and like Star Trek it spawned a genre has continued to thrive over the decades.  

George Romero’s movie about a zombie apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968 and spawned numberless spinoffs and reincarnations that proliferate with ever greater frequency as we continue to plunge into the technological future.

Where Rodenberry’s universe envisioned a life of perfect harmony encapsulated within highly regimented machine culture, Romero’s nightmare is one in which the machinery of social order is rendered useless, and humans themselves loose all sense of aspiration and affection, becoming machinelike incarnations of pure appetite. Successive portrayals of the Zombie Fear have incorporated environmental collapse, worldwide epidemic, the fall of the social order. 

I believe that beneath all of these is a deeper fear, that of being absorbed by the collective itself. In the latest contribution to the genre based on the bestselling novel by Max Brooks, World War Z, initial ‘zombie fear’ of humans being transformed into mindless automatons of appetite has been upgraded to a merging of the automatons into a singular collective nightmare.  

To traditional cultures, bound by history, ritual, human affection and common belief the implacable advance of technological civilization appears like a plague, threatening to destroy all that gives life purpose. From a different perspective the technocratic mind fears most of all a collapse of rational order and an abandonment of the social compact to the demands of selfish individuals. The zombie fear manages to incorporate both extremes in a common terror of being swept up into nihilistic oblivion.   

Here is the real World War Z, where a hopeful vision of a universe run by benevolent uniformed geeks or one determined by the rhythmic rituals and cycles based in tradition and relationship to the natural world are both obliterated by the needs of the machinery we’ve created. 

The majority of humanity now lives in cities where life is no longer governed by the sun and the moon and the passage of the seasons. The dissonance between lives we live in manmade environments governed by the clock and the demands of our bodies as parts of nature continue to generate dreams and nightmares. Thus our summers are increasingly filled with apocalyptic scenarios that depict a world beset by zombies, robots, aliens and supernatural beings. In our collective fantasies the earth erupts or is bombarded by objects from space. Epidemics rage across the globe. Our imaginations are alight with fascination with our own impending doom, but within our nightmares are the seeds of resistance.  

The zombies of World War Z are modeled on the behavior of ants, a suitable representation for the fear on both sides of the political divide that we are being overrun by  something less than human, like a virus, driven by a mindless will. We certainly can’t change the world or redraw the bargains we’ve made when lost in a world of dreams, but maybe in our dreams can summon a possibility of change.

In the meanwhile the zombies will return again and again, the monsters will continue to rise from the deep, cosmic villainy will prevail and the world will appear to hang on the brink. Godlike heroes will manifest to save the day. Maybe one day we’ll come to conscious terms with our creations and the Star Trek vision of benevolent and compassionate societies dedicated to exploration and service will come to be. After all, our actions and designs for living are first born in the imagination and even in our most vivid nightmares we plant the seeds of possibility.   


Zombie Nation

The other night I was sitting having a beer in a friend’s house trailer, making conversation about the fate of the world, occasionally casting a glance at the flat screen television mounted near the ceiling. Not being a regular television watcher, the idea of having the image factory going constantly, even with the sound off is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the cavalcade of images that drew my attention as we talked.

The screen was tuned to the Discovery Channel and the program being broadcast was a two hour special called “Zombie Apocalypse.” This is apparently a guide to survival at the end of civilization. The documentary footage features grade B actors playing survivalists, ER physicians, college professors and various “experts” in the defense against attacking zombies. In past decades this would’ve been considered a satirical “mockumentary” approach to an obviously fictional scenario, but in the hallucinogenic culture of today I’m convinced that a large part of the population can no longer distinguish fantasy from truth.

In our America the true is no longer woven out of facts. The truth is merely a matter of belief. One can believe in virtually anything and make it real, turn it into a subculture, a reality show, or a political movement.

A couple of weeks ago in a great circling of the wagons that took place in Houston, Texas, somewhere around 70,000 people gathered for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The complexion and makeup of those who gathered most likely resembled those seen at a Republican National Convention, including a large contingent of conspiracy theorists, militia enthusiasts and (I’m sure) zombie fighters . The motto of this year’s convention was “Stand and Fight.”

An obvious question is, “Fight who?”

The answer no doubt includes criminals, liberals, the government, immigrants, zombies and all that the media so successfully markets as objects to fear. A recent poll found that 44% of Americans think that we are headed for an “armed rebellion.” Mostly folks wrapped in a belief that “freedom” is somehow synonymous with the right to arm themselves against all others.

I can actually understand their motivations and perhaps even sympathize with their fears, knowing that underneath all the various projections and fantasies of “the enemy” is the growing certainty of an entire culture being overcome and vanishing, as surely as have all the extinct tribes that have gone before. The pathetic irony is that nothing threatening this culture’s survival can be defended against with armaments, no matter how lethal or quickly loaded.

The foundations of what we once called “freedom” are vanishing as quickly as pond ice on a warm spring day. What remains of the American Dream of individual autonomy is confined to images cooked up in the fantasy world of theme parks and television. Nearly every community and every city, large and small, has turned itself into an artificial construct, where identity is constructed out of slogans and corporate logos. We are what we watch. New York and Paris and Shanghai are rapidly becoming collections of interchangeable parts as each city replicates a well oiled machine interface that balances a shrinking quotient of local novelty with the familiarity of recognizable brands. What we look for as we travel is the nearest Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks or MacDonalds.

I remember a time when I was very young and it appeared that civilization had a direction and my country had a sense of common purpose. I now realize that this perceived reality was a manufactured illusion, but now even that level of commonly accepted artifice is gone away. It went to Las Vegas, where all traces of human purpose are absorbed by our continual response to the demands of automated mechanisms of reward.

A recent statistic indicates that suicides among middle aged males has risen by 48% since 2010. Most of the gun deaths in this country are the result of suicide. Could it be that the relationship of the gun owner to his or her gun resembles that of the bulemic to food? In both cases the object of obsession is perceived as a shield from despair. In either case beneath the shield is a hidden death wish and it brings one ever closer to the very thing feared. Is it any surprise that the zombies we fight in our fantasy scenarios are the reanimated corpses of the very people with whom we are familiar?

Thus we have this sad gathering of the paranoid deep in Texas defending what no longer exists in any meaningful way; the “American Dream” of “the home of the brave and the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all.” What in our era do any of these words mean? What freedoms do we have beyond the freedom to shop? We can choose the 30 round magazine over the 15 round magazine or the 42 inch television over the 36 inch. We can navigate to our favorite web site to stoke our preconceptions or paranoid daydreams. We can decide who to cheer for or who to blame. We can switch channels, but we’ve given up almost every freedom but the freedom to be entertained.

“Daily skirmishes were now being fought, no longer for territory or commodities but for electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth. As the Era of Sail had depended upon the mapping of seas and sea coasts of the globe and winds of the wind-rose, so upon the measurement of newer variables would depend the history that was to pass up here, among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun.”

– Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
I don’t want to leave us with a feeling of despair. Despair doesn’t do anyone any good. Although nostalgia for the “loss” of individual freedoms can perhaps justify our desperate response, we may also consider that aspects of our loss may be part of a necessary evolutionary advance.

In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. At the beginning of the last century that number had grown to 14% and by 1950 it was 30%. It is now projected that by 2050 more than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. The population of the world’s cities is growing at the rate of a million and a half people every week. Can anyone realistically project that the values by which we navigated the past will not have to change substantially as we enter the future? (Sources: United Nations and Geoffrey West)
I once studied the ideas and architecture of Paolo Soleri, who proposed that humanity must structurally adapt in order to survive, just as life has always adapted to changing conditions and environmental pressures. As our population increases our lives have entered a new stage of complexity in which we must evolve a more flexible organism, one that is more compact and efficient and requires less energy to maintain. As the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals, so our sprawling urban landscapes must find ways to consolidate services and resources so that more people can inhabit less space while generating less waste. Soleri (who died on April 9th of this year) proposed a radical redesign of the urban environment that envisioned densely populated cities as single structures, called Arcologies, which functioned as integrated and tightly managed outgrowths of the natural landscape.

His view is controversial, because in order to conceive of such a project one has to envision a humanity as radically altered from what it is now as are mammals a radical departure from the life of giant lizards. How do we get from a world filled with religious warfare and ethnic hatred to one where diverse populations can live in ever closer quarters without civilization self-destructing?

That appears to be what we are seeing right now, as institutions appear to collapse under their own weight and complexity. Having left a century dominated by massive world wars we appear to have entered one where regional warfare is almost constant, waged within cultures even more than between them. Our politics are shaped by the struggles of rural versus urban, tradition versus technology, global versus national and a shrinking population of the privileged versus a growing culture of poverty.

Meanwhile the movies and television and the Internet fill with imagined apocalyptic scenarios of government conspiracies, environmental extinction, alien invasions, wars against machines and zombie attacks. I’ve come to realize that these are the nightmares of a culture that in fact faces very real extinction. And so it must, as a prelude to what Arthur C. Clarke would have called “Childhood’s End.” The new human being is being born at the same time that the old perishes. Rather than mourning what is passing I choose to search for indications of what’s to come.

(to be continued…)


You Can’t Stop The Signal

Roger and Me

I never knew Roger Ebert although I was at a party with him once, in 1983 at the Telluride Film Festival. He seemed to be a nice, unpretentious guy ready to have a good time with others, bathing in the world he loved the best, the movies. At the time I was busy scurrying around trying to get situated, setting up my living situation for the event. That was the festival where I met the famous Russian director, Andrey Tarkovsky, who was a featured guest that year, and his wife on my way up the mountain. The two of them were picking wildflowers and they gave me a very pleasant greeting as I passed them on the trail. I’d been waiting in a film line to go into the dark when I was irresistibly pulled away by the view of those towering peaks over Telluride under the influence of a beautiful fall day. 

Another influence that day, a small cache of psychedelic mushrooms stored in my jacket pocket, were ingested as I climbed. Unfortunately, as the day progressed my disconnect from the world of time and space led me to misread the trail map. I ended up in a cul-de-sac as day turned into night and a stormy sky rolled in to drop the temperature about twenty degrees and cover the moon, making darkness almost absolute as I crawled my way along cliff sides trying to find a way down. In the end I fell off of a ledge into a blind gully, breaking my wrist and a few teeth, and had to climb out the next morning after a shivering night and stumble my way to the trail below. I was rescued by a local emergency crew and taken to the county hospital in nearby Montrose, spending the duration of the festival there. I only made it to the final, then traditional, polka dance that closed the festivities. I danced with my head bandaged and my arm in a sling and gained short lived notoriety as the “guy who fell of the cliff at Telluride.” 

The ‘accident’ led to a leave of absence which gave me an opportunity to work full time on the staff of one of the early Denver International Film Festivals. In the years that followed this stoked my passion for the movies and I got to meet people like Wim Wenders, Agnes Varda, Alan Rudolf, Robert Altman and many of the people behind the process that puts those images up on the screen. I began writing about the movies in outraged response to the largely negative critical reception to the movie “Blade Runner”, which I thought at the time was an absolute masterpiece. Like many people in the film audience I watched the early seasons of Siskel and Ebert on public television. I cheered and booed their thumbs up and thumbs down reviews and came to dislike the simplistic mode of praise or put down so many film critics began to emulate.

What came through with Roger Ebert was something more than this. Here was a writer with an obvious love of the medium and a sincere appreciation of all those who contributed to it. When you listened to him you learned something, whether you agreed with him or not. Unlike most critics whose job it is to watch hundreds of movies good and bad, he didn’t get trapped in predictable patterns of likes and dislikes, remaining open to new approaches that expanded the possibilities of storytelling. When you read his reviews you knew that he approached every film fairly, open to whatever the film maker might attempt, without his personal agenda getting in the way.

The Beasts

In these days of mighty CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and 3D and IMAX and stadium sized theaters and all of the other efforts to bring people into the cinema it’s remarkable to see a movie that makes us rethink the way we see movies and the role of art itself.

All movies are to some extent fairytales in the ways they relate to what we know as the ‘real’ world. Even documentaries are fairytales in the sense that they capture events within the mythic frame of the camera lens and organize them into narratives designed to capture our hearts and minds.

Since the invention of the camera we have used the images captured and purposefully arranged by storytellers to make sense of our world. In the age of technology we interpret our lives though the mediation of the lens and the screen.

Technology has reshaped our lives to follow its own designs. We’ve built mighty barriers that separate and protect us from the natural world. The effect has been to divide us from our own bodies and from the body of the earth that sustains us. Living in this disembodied state we suffer from diseases of separation that devastate our environment and drive us insane.

The waters that we have held back are now rising. The time has come for us to re-unite with the sources of our being. The earth itself cries out and sends us signals through our dreams. For those who are ready to listen here is a dream from the soul of the earth.
The Beasts of the Southern Wild sings the power of the body returning. Through our bodies the universe speaks to us and we awaken to our connections with everything there is. In a time when cinema weaves fairytales by the dozen here is a fairytale that brings us closer to the world in which we actually live.

It’s difficult to describe this movie. It isn’t quite like anything else I’ve seen. At times it looks like a roughly cut fable assembled out of fragments of debris washed up by the flood. At times it moves with soul stirring beauty and grace. It offers a heroic and defiant journey that surprises us with magic and miracles at every turn, and yet it never leaves behind the gritty realities of life and death. The whole story swirls about the figure of a six year old girl called Hushpuppy and her father Wink, who live in a place called The Bathtub, where people of all races and ages live in natural harmony with each other and with the world around them. It’s a place outside of the world of machinery we’ve constructed that allows us to rise out of the flowing waters of life and change. In the words of Hushpuppy’s father, “…the most beautiful place in the world.”

When the storm comes and the waters rise the inhabitants of the Bathtub who stay behind are faced with the struggle to survive in a realm that’s been both devastated and poisoned. They are being forced to leave by those who would ‘rescue’ them and write them off as forgotten remnants of a world that is no more. Instead of submitting to the rules of the ‘civilized’ world the people who carry the Bathtub’s soul rise up to resist, and in their resistance summon nature’s most powerful creations to be their allies.
Here is a fable that evokes the world in which we live and the choices each of us will have when faced with the storms that are coming. In a sense this is a prayer for survival and a hymn to the true nature of who and what we are, not apart from anything, able to live and walk in beauty over the earth that is our mother and rejoicing in the magic that gives us the gift of life.

Two Movies

Two exceptional movies framed the past year for me. 

The Tree of Life begins as a seed of light and then expands to the whole territory of existence. Through the memories of ordinary life juxtaposed with glimpses of the primal forces of creation we are given a view of a universe spawned in raptures of what may be called love. 
Melancholia is no less of a masterpiece, but its subject is the utter finality of death. 
Tree of Life is actually the first movie by Terence Malick that I totally enjoyed and appreciated. As ambitious as any film can be, it’s also so unconventional in structure that to many it has been either overwhelming or inaccessible. The only film I can think of that embraces so wide a vision is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, while that movie approaches the big ideas from a rather cerebral standpoint and spends most of its time outside of the earth, Malick’s singular achievement is to uncover the secrets of the soul through the device of memory and the lens of an ordinary life. 
We watch a life unfold from infancy to adulthood in a little town in Texas and we are also witness to the initial explosion of creation leading to the evolution of life on our planet. Malick’s theme is the continuity between the extremes of our mundane existance and of the greater evolution within which our lives unfold. Only a director who is equally at home with the grandest vision and the minute particulars of memory could pull this off.
On one hand this is certainly one of the best portraits of growing up that I’ve ever seen. I could feel the textures and almost sense the smells and touch of my own childhood, growing up in the fifties. The intimacy and the struggles of family life, and particularly the relationship between a father and a son are revealed in such finely selected detail that what we witness reveals universal themes of love and struggle contained in singular circumstance. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father is truly exceptional as is the performance of the young Hunter McCracken as the son and Jessica Chastain as both mother and as the embodiment of grace. 
Somehow, woven through the family drama, in a manner that is miraculously seamless, we witness in breathtaking segments the big bang, the evolution of stars, the emergence of life and the birth of the world we are familiar with. I can’t describe how or why this works, but it’s a feat that only a master of film and a true spiritual visionary could achieve without for a moment falling into the maudlin and sentimental. 
At center the movie carries an essentially Christian message, but one that is both universal and transcendent. When we contemplate the last few images of skyscrapers and the Golden Gate bridge, we are seeing them through the eyes of a man who has taken the full lesson of life, that all that we are and all that we build are the products ultimately of the love that has been passed on to us.
Melancholia, by Lars von Trier, is about the denial of love and of life and the profound emptiness at the core of our suffering. Von Trier is a controversial director whose films have earned both the highest recognition and vitriolic condemnation. His actresses have won acclaim while he has been accused of misogyny for the usually harsh treatment of their characters in his films. His movies are not always easy to watch or gentle on our sensibilities, but he is an absolute master at constructing images that transcend the content of his narratives. Like one of his mentors, the Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky, he approaches film as a painter or sculptor in time, building for us in a precise accumulation of impressions a total picture that leaves us usually stunned and breathless. 
About five years ago a very good friend of mine ended her life by jumping into the Rio Grande Gorge. I’ve often tried to imagine what went through her mind as she drove her ramshackle car with a broken window 40 miles up through the canyons toward Taos under the cold and overcast April sky, arriving at the bridge in the dark of evening. She walked to one of the exposed platforms that overlook the river, 600 feet down. You can’t see the river once the sun goes down, so what you are looking into is a vast pool of darkness with the distant sound of the rapids sifting between the canyon walls. What was she feeling as she removed her coat and her shoes, climbed the railing and jumped? Was it sudden fear or the exhilaration of flight, or just a numbing descent into oblivion? 
I believe that the motives we imagine for suicide are full of misconceptions. Sometimes we think that a person who commits suicide is trying to leave here for a better place or was seeking some sort of transcendent experience. We may think that it’s an act of violence or revenge enacted toward we the survivors. Finally I’ve come to accept that for some people this life means nothing but constant pain, and death for them is not about transcendence or revenge, but only a blessed end to it all.   
In Melancholia a world ten times the size of our own collides with the earth. We see it twice. During the overture we view the spectacle from outer space, as one enormous globe embraces and devours the other. Then we watch a woman’s life unravel in her total collapse into depression. We then see her slowly revive with the revelation of the end and finally in a welcome embrace of death. Then, once more we witness the collision of worlds, this time from the perspective of those whose lives are ended in its vast and sudden conflagration. 
These are timely images in a year when visions of strange planets and worlds colliding echo in the consciousness of many who expect the revelation of dire prophecies. But von Trier isn’t talking about prophecies. He is addressing the condition of both longing and avoidance as we face each other and our individual mortality. The character Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a woman who tries to find meaning in the enveloping ritual of an elaborately staged wedding celebration. When confronted by the contradictory undercurrents and self deceptions of family, friends and associates, she fails completely in her efforts to conform, and what results is the almost complete collapse of her world. What remains is her relationship with Claire, her sister and caretaker, Claire’s husband, and their young son. The final drama plays out on a huge estate separated from anyone else in the world. Overshadowing every relationship is the approach and impending arrival of the mysterious planet, which is in the end, death itself. 
What we witness is that in the face of death all of our illusions and rituals unravel and we can no longer hide from our fears. We are unmasked. The scientist must set aside rationality and embrace the unknown. Those who have everything under control see that control is ultimately an illusion. To those who welcome death with open arms, and perhaps for the children who are too innocent to have constructed a body of fear there is the possibility of calm acceptance or even embrace. 
In the final image in the film, the two sisters and the child sit under a tent made of branches while the beautiful and awesome planet fills the horizon before it obliterates everything. This singular and powerful image is one that I will carry with me for a long time. For me it conveys a certain acceptance. To my surprise I found in this film a kind of understanding and a kind of peace. 
These are the two movies, out of all that I saw in 2011 that stand out as special achievements. On the surface they appear to be contradictory in their themes, but as both strive to address universal questions of life and death they are not as far apart as they seem. Perhaps, as my own awareness vibrates between the poles of light and dark, life and death, love and despair, I find it  quite natural to embrace both visions.