WEBINAR: “Formational Films Round-Up: Movies That Matter,” hosted by Renovaré: Recorded August 24, this is an excellent eighty-minute conversation with film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously], minister Catherine Barsotti, and theologian Chris Hall, led by Carolyn Arends [previously]. Each of the three guests identifies and discusses five films that have been spiritually formative to them—and what great selections! (Though there are four I have not yet seen.) Barsotti’s number one is one of my all-time favorites.
Because the movie ratings issue (that is, content like violence, sex, and/or language) is almost always raised by Christian audiences, Arends asks, “Are there some films that are bad for you to watch, and if so, why?” The question is wisely addressed from 34:52 to 49:40.
INTERVIEW: “We must become poetry,”Still Life: For the September 13, 2021, edition of his weekly Still Life letter, Michael Wright [previously] interviewed Christian author Paul J. Pastor, having been intrigued by a recent tweet of his, which asks, “Where are the bardic preachers, wild at the eye, speaking not just to mind or heart, but to gut?” Pastor talks about the connection between the seen and the unseen; the relationality of poetry and finding shelter in the words, images, and emotions of another; holistic knowing; the disservice of reducing the Bible’s poetry to moral lessons with tidy applications; the nearness of Walt Whitman’s poetic vision to the Christian vision of sanctification; and more.
“My passion is for Christians to reclaim our way’s remarkable resources for living virtuously, beautifully, and well,” he says. Mine too!
To subscribe to Still Life, distributed for free every Monday over email, click here.
Lecture by David Brinker for the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial, Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, PA, September 12, 2021: I mentioned the call for entries for this exhibition back in June. Of the 396 entries from artists from around the country, MOCRA director and guest juror David Brinker has selected 52. In this talk given the weekend after the exhibition’s opening (which starts at 14:47), he discusses the following three questions, pulling in artworks from the current exhibition and from his twenty-five-plus years as an art curator at a Catholic institution.
What identifies contemporary art as “Catholic”?
What contributions can Catholic art and artists offer to the broader contemporary art world?
What can Catholic art and artists receive from the broader art world?
(The three photos above are provided courtesy of the Verostko Center for the Arts.)
Saint Vincent’s 8th Catholic Arts Biennial exhibition is on view through October 29, 2021; off-campus visitors are asked to make an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. While you’re in the area, you might also want to visit the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, which houses artifacts from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as part of a larger permanent exhibition on his life, work, and influence. (Latrobe was Fred Rogers’s hometown.) And Pittsburgh is just an hour away!
I’m fascinated by Mary Magdalene, and while I won’t get to see this exhibition, it appears that it does an excellent job of exploring the many facets of her life and identity (including both before meeting Jesus and after his ascension), as told through canonical and apocryphal texts, and her complicated reception history. It addresses her role as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection; the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which has Peter saying, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them”; the legacy of Pope Gregory the Great’s infamous Easter sermon of 591 CE, which, in its (many would say erroneous) conflation of the Magdalen with other New Testament women, identified her as a converted prostitute; the development of legends about her later life in southern France, as an evangelist, a miracle-worker, and a penitent, cave-dwelling ascetic; modern films and literature that cast her as a romantic lover, or even the wife, of Jesus; and Pope Francis’s elevation of her liturgical commemoration from an obligatory memorial to a feast day in 2016, in which she is to be celebrated not as a fallen woman doing penance but as the “apostle to the apostles,” a title of hers dating back to the High Middle Ages.
The poster above features Mary Magdalene Receives the Holy Spirit by American photographer David LaChapelle, Magdalena by contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas, The Magdalen from a sixteenth-century Flemish workshop, and Mary Magdalene by nineteenth-century Belgian artist Alfred Stevens.
ARTICLE: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art”: In honor of the seven hundredth anniversary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s death on September 14, the Public Domain Review has collected art directly inspired by his Commedia from over the last seven centuries—on the nine circles of hell, the beatific vision, and much more. Under the tutelage of literature professor Stefano Gidari, I read and studied Dante’s groundbreaking afterlife-adventure trilogy—in Italian!—in 2009 while living in Florence, where it was written, which was such an invaluable experience.
SONGWRITING CONTEST: 2021 Creation Care and Climate Justice Songwriting Contest, sponsored by The Porter’s Gate: “We are working on new worship resources celebrating God’s creation and His call to care for the created world. Over the next year we’ll be writing new songs on this subject and recording them. As part of this project, we are looking for submissions from anyone who would like to write a song or has already written a song on this subject. If you are a songwriter or composer, or if you know a songwriter who would be interested, click on this link for all the details of the contest. Songwriters are invited to submit worship songs related to caring for God’s creation, and we are offering a $500 cash prize to the winner. We’ll also record the winning piece.” No entry fee. Deadline August 30, 2021.
CINEPOEM: “First Grade Activist” – Poem by Nic Sebastian, video by Marie Craven: This 2014 short by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven takes a poem written and read by Nic Sebastian—one of many poems made freely available for “remixing” through the now-defunct Poetry Storehouse—and sets it to moving images and music. About bullying in schools and transforming perceptions, the poem suggests concrete ways to turn a personal attribute that elicits taunts into one that’s praiseworthy, merely by reframing it. It’s an ode to red hair!
They discuss the role of metaphor in the Bible, the unique powers of different art forms, and the ways our aesthetic choices open up and close down opportunities for formation in worship.
I so appreciate Taylor’s ecumenicism. He’s an Anglican priest in the United States but does not prescribe any one “right” way of using the arts in worship. In all his examples from across Christian traditions and even historical eras, he’s keen on exploring what motivates aesthetic choices and the benefits and drawbacks of any given choice. For instance, he compares the experiences of worshipping in a Gothic cathedral versus in a living room; neither one is inherently better than the other, but each setting will inevitably form worshippers in distinct ways. He also compares two songs centered on the idea of God as rescuer: the Gettys’ “In Christ Alone” and Hillsong’s “Oceans”; both have a similar aim but take very different approaches to reach it, and that’s OK.
Lots of great content here, folks, and a great intro to the themes in Taylor’s book.
NEW PLAYLIST: August 2021 (Art & Theology): This month’s thirty-song roundup opens with a 1936 recording by blues guitarist and singer Blind Roosevelt Graves and goes on to include “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of HOUSE OF THE RISISNG SUN; “Amaholo,” a song in Luganda performed by a youth choir from Kkindu Village, Uganda (its first line is “God’s blessing can’t be blocked by the devil!”); some Joan Baez and Johnny Cash; “Pretty Home,” a Shaker hymn by Patsy Roberts Williamson, an enslaved African American woman whose freedom was purchased by the Pleasant Hill Shaker community in the early 1800s; Psalm 118:1–4 in Hebrew, set by one of the most popular contemporary singer-songwriters of Jewish religious songs, Debbie Friedman, and sung by a trio of brothers; a gospel song from one of my favorite films of 2019, Peanut Butter Falcon; and “God Yu Takem Laef Blong Mi,” a Melanesian choir rendition of “Take My Life and Let it Be” from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
CALL FOR PITCHES: Geez 63 Jubilee: “What would the biblical practice of Jubilee look like today? Geez magazine is looking for submissions that reimagine ideas of debt forgiveness, reparations, trumpets singing, and a whole lot of radical rest. Deadline for pitches: August 12.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
Creative nonfiction essays, investigative articles, “flash nonfiction” (short insights, as few as fifty words), photographs, and poems are among the forms accepted. To get you started, Geez provides a whole host of questions for pondering, as well as specific prompts, such as:
Rewrite Isaiah 61, “The year of the Lord’s favor,” in the context of today’s struggles for justice.
Take a nap. Write a poem about it.
Write a street liturgy for the front steps of Navient, American Educational Services, or other student loan debt collectors.
Explore global social movements that have employed practices of Jubilee, implicitly or explicitly.
The Gesualdo Six is an award-winning British vocal ensemble directed by Owain Park. I’ve really been enjoying all the content on their YouTube channel, which includes original performances of sacred motets, hymns, carols, chansons, and contemporary pieces—like the two below, both written specifically for the group. Be sure to check out their website for information about live concerts!
>> “The Blue Bird” by Andrew Maxfield: The composer writes, “The text [see below]—a beloved poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge—evokes ‘blueness’ not just in its title; every image is blue: the lake, the bird’s wings, the sky above and beneath. Far from being monochromatic, though, this poetic meditation reveals a multiplicity within the narrow spectrum we label ‘blue.’ Royal. Navy. Cobalt. Tiffany. Sky. Midnight. All of these flash, but only briefly, as our winged protagonist catches his fleeting reflection in the lake’s glassy surface. Blue, then, is the subject and substance of my musical setting. Harmonically, the piece hovers, as the bird does, in what feels to me like a cool, gentle, blue sound—little variations and reflections on the wings and water here and there, but the piece attempts to remain ‘blue in blue’ (or what Miles Davis might have called ‘Kind of Blue’) and, after not too long, disappears, as the birds shifts, glides, and vanishes. Melodically, this bird nods to another: to William Byrd, one of the great composers of the English Renaissance, whose contrapuntal inventiveness inspires me. And—I couldn’t help myself—my setting alludes to Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Blue,’ but I leave it to you to locate the reference.”
The lake lay blue below the hill. O’er it, as I looked, there flew Across the waters, cold and still, A bird whose wings were palest blue.
The sky above was blue at last, The sky beneath me blue in blue. A moment, ere the bird had passed, It caught his image as he flew.
ONLINE EVENTS: “Origin, an Art House Dallas program, seeks to establish a wholeness and connectedness between spiritual formation, imagination, and the arts with the ultimate intent to establish a sacred perspective on how we individually and collectively live and create. We believe that beauty shown through the arts, culture, and creation holds a powerful ability to form the way we see ourselves, the world, and our interaction with both.”
This summer’s iteration of the program consists of a series of online Thursday night talks by artists or pastors, followed by facilitated discussions. Two of these have already passed, but two are still upcoming: “Embodiment” with Guy Delcambre on August 12, and “Beauty” with Kelly Kruse on August 26. RSVP at Eventbrite.
In addition to the free events, there’s an accompanying anthology of articles, poems, visual art, scripture, and questions for prayerful reflection, which is on sale for $8.
MOVIE OPENING: I’m working my way through all the Best Picture Oscar winners since the award’s inception in 1928 and have come upon 1980’s Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, it’s about the fragmentation of an upper middle-class family, the Jarretts, following the death of the eldest son, Buck, in a sailing accident and a subsequent suicide attempt by the other son, Conrad (played by Timothy Hutton).
I was really struck by its opening, which features a sacred choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D by Noel Goemanne. Although the film is not a religious one, the choice to open it with a prayer from the lips of Conrad, albeit one assigned by his high school choir teacher, is very fitting, as it voices the character’s longings. Throughout the film Conrad will struggle to find that peace, joy, and love he sings about in class—learning over time to assert with sincerity, in spite of grave tragedy, “Alleluia.”
The full lyrics by Goemanne are below, and you can watch a performance of the full song by the Meridian Community College Chorus and Guitar Ensemble here.
In the silence of our souls O Lord, we contemplate Thy peace Free from all the world’s desires Free of fear and all anxiety
O Lord our God Wisdom, joy, and peace and love divine O Lord our God Glory, praise, and honor be always thine
O dearest Lord, come to us now Have mercy on us, stay with us and protect us all
O Lord our God Wisdom, truth, and love and peace and joy O Lord our King Thy praises we will always sing
The arts don’t just fill our time with uplifting stories and pretty pictures. They don’t just distract us with things to look at; they teach us how to look. They train our vision, down to the level of our souls.
Art can teach us to see the tiny gradations in a field of green—or how to see a suffering world in the context of grace. How to recognize the humanity of a character who seems like an irredeemable villain. How to slow down. How to pay attention not just to the notes but the silences between the notes. How to hear the echo of divine music in human speech. How to look at our own failures and successes with perspective, even laughter. The arts ask us to use the full range of our senses. And they can restore us to our full, God-given humanity.
—Greg Pennoyer, executive director of Image journal [source]
JULY PLAYLIST: The songs I’ve compiled this month on Spotify include Audrey Assad’s rewrite of a classic patriotic hymn [previously], a Bach partita with added words by Alanna Boudreau inspired by Dante’s Inferno, a Sotho interpretation of Psalm 23 by the Soweto Gospel Choir, a celebration of God as artist written and sung by a Franciscan friar from the Bronx, a song of testimony performed by blues musician Elizabeth Cotten and her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans, a multilingual song setting of Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers . . .”) (again, with multigenerational participation!), Psalm 103 sung in Hebrew with ancient Middle Eastern instruments, and more.
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Great Cloud by Nick Chambers: This is one of the creative projects I donated to this week. Chambers writes, “For over a decade, I have written music for the Church without much concern for the songs reaching beyond the particular place and people to which I belong. Now I want to release and share this music more widely. And you can help.
“I write songs to help give voice for people to pray, question, confess, doubt, lament, give thanks, and praise. Because I owe so much in this to the many faithful voices of history of the Church, this first record will be a collection of prayers of the saints—faithful voices such as Ephrem the Syrian, Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman, and more.
“I have been planning with producer Isaac Wardell (The Porter’s Gate, Bifrost Arts) to record in early September in Paris near where he is currently based. The Porter’s Gate will be recording the same week, which means your support toward my $15k goal will go toward my record and travel costs, as well as allowing me to contribute in person to the next Porter’s Gate project.”
Here’s an example of Chambers’s singing-songwriting—a setting of Psalm 22:
There’s a thing that worries me sometimes whenever you talk about creativity, ’cause it can have the feel that it’s just nice, you know; or it’s warm or it’s something pleasant. It’s not. It’s vital. It’s the way we heal each other. In singing our song, in telling our story, . . . we’re starting a dialogue. And when you do that, healing happens. And we come out of our corners. And we start to witness each other’s common humanity. We start to assert it. And when we do that, really good things happen.
>> “‘Stop Working Me’: Jesse Pinkman as Child-Prophet in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad” by Mary McCampbell: Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, played by Aaron Paul, is one of my favorite TV characters of all time; I think I can truly say I’ve never been more emotionally invested in, or rooted harder for, any other. Mary McCampbell, author of the forthcoming book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: Empathy, the Arts, and the Religious Imagination (Fortress, 2021), writes about Jesse’s role as “child-prophet,” who sees and exposes with increasing clarity and conviction the amoral decay of the empire he helped Walt build. (Note: the article contains some series spoilers.)
>> “Revealing the Father: L. M. Montgomery, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Doctrine in Art” by Alicia Pollard: This article examines how the doctrine of God the Father shows up in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables and Dorothy Sayers’s play The EmperorConstantine. The former chooses “the way of whimsical unorthodoxy”; the latter, “the way of passionate orthodoxy and reenchanted dogma as a living agent of truth.”
SONG: “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (abolitionist version by A. G. Duncan, 1843): I wanted to post this for Juneteenth, but alas, I’m two weeks late. Just twelve years after Samuel Francis Smith wrote “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” a scathing rewrite by abolitionist A. G. Duncan was published in Massachusetts in the book Anti-Slavery Melodies. Exposing the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaimed life and liberty for all and yet perpetuated the evil institution of race-based chattel slavery, it’s a call to lament—“let wailing swell the breeze”—as well as an anticipation of coming liberation, God be praised. (Again, this was 1843, almost two decades before the Civil War.) This vocal arrangement and performance using Duncan’s alt lyrics is by Chase Holfelder, who sings the song in a minor key. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
My country, ’tis of thee, Stronghold of slavery, of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died, Where men man’s rights deride, From every mountainside thy deeds shall ring.
My native country, thee, Where all men are born free, if white’s their skin; I love thy hills and dales, Thy mounts and pleasant vales, But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin.
Let wailing swell the breeze, And ring from all the trees the black man’s wrong; Let every tongue awake; Let bond and free partake; Let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.
Our father’s God! to thee, Author of Liberty, to thee we sing; Soon may our land be bright, With holy freedom’s right, Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
It comes, the joyful day, When tyranny’s proud sway, stern as the grave, Shall to the ground be hurl’d, And freedom’s flag, unfurl’d, Shall wave throughout the world o’er every slave.
Trump of glad jubilee! Echo o’er land and sea freedom for all. Let the glad tidings fly, And every tribe reply, “Glory to God on high,” at Slavery’s fall!
Organized by Image journal every summer, the Glen is equal parts craft workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. It’s framed by the Christian tradition but welcomes spiritual wayfarers of all stripes. This year, due to the pandemic, it’s entirely online, with twelve different classes on offer, taught by renowned artists, writers, and critics. Visit https://imagejournal.org/the-glen-workshop-2021/ for more information.
“The last year has invited many of us into a thicker relationship with place: with the homes where we quarantine, the public spaces we navigate with new caution, the vacation destinations we dream about, and the neighborhood streets we walk to avoid going stir-crazy in the meantime. Even our computers have transformed from objects to places, ushering us into the homes of loved ones, yoga studios, concert halls, museums, and countless other virtual gatherings, including the 2021 Glen Workshop! This year we’ll be exploring the ways in which our surroundings feed our creative vision. And we’ll also consider how art—both making it and sitting with it—sharpens our capacity for attention to the places we live and move and have our being.”
Each class costs $950 and is open to all experience levels. The schedule is such that attendees can choose just one. Registration to any class gives you full access not only to five days (about three hours each) of expert instruction, in-depth conversation, and practice, but also to additional programming that includes faculty presentations, “experiments with poetry and place” with artist in residence Billy Mark, chapel services led by musician Charles Jones and chaplain Marilyn McEntyre, coffee hours, open-mic nights, centering prayer sessions, and yoga sessions. Again, it’s all online.
If you don’t want to register for a class but want access to the other content or just a sneak peek, there are “retreat registration” and “festival pass” options. Click here to view registration options. You can get a 25% off discount if you register in a group of three or more.
What follows is a full list of the workshops (hands-on, craft-based classes) and seminars (immersive, discussion-based classes). I’m considering registering for either the Rosen seminar on contemporary biblical art or the Overstreet seminar on film. The cost is reasonable, but it’s still high, so I have to see if I can make it work.
“Poetic Text as Provocation” with Scott Cairns: “We will embrace an approach to poetry that privileges poetic text as a scene of meaning-making, distinct from any approach that would understand the poem as a site of meaning already made. We will begin most days with a reading of a great and provocative poem and discuss the provocations each of us registers in response to that poem. Then, we will share our works-in-progress, and each of us will offer our ideas about what might make each draft a richer, more suggestive, provocative occasion for the reader.”
“The Attention We Owe Each Other”with Shane McCrae: “It is important to almost every poet to find a community of fellow poets with whom they can share their work, and from whom they can expect serious and good-humored attention, and honest and direct critiques. Together, we will make that community. Our poetry workshop will not operate according to any particular idea save the idea that poetry is serious—that it is, in fact, among the most serious things in our lives—and that, consequentially, we owe each other seriousness, and intelligence, and sensitivity when we workshop each other’s poems. We will read and critique each other’s poems closely; we will prioritize whatever particular issues each poem asks us to prioritize while keeping in mind the issues its author has asked us to consider; and we will have fun together, the highest seriousness being joy.”
“Writing the Moveable Feast” with Alissa Wilkinson: “Food is what binds us together as humans. We all eat it. We all make it, or someone makes it for us. We all have opinions about it and preferences for it, which often come from the things that make us, well, us: our families of origin, our nationalities and ethnicities, our individual tastes, our beliefs about God and ethics, and our access to it. Food is the gateway to every aspect of human life; when we eat it, we’re participating in history, culture, and the economy.
“Feasting is one of the most important activities we can do as people. It’s an act of community-building, celebration, and even resistance to the forces that try to tear us apart. Many religious and spiritual traditions are built around feasting; the Bible ends at a wedding feast.
“So in this class, we’re going to talk about food, think about food, make food, and eat food. We’ll talk about how writers have interacted with food and food writing. We will try to understand what it might mean to feast together even when we can’t actually be together. And then we’ll do our own food writing, with the goal of exploring that common experience through our writing (in any genre).”
“Strange Countries: Writing the Inner and Outer Journey” with Fred Bahnson: “In sixth-century Ireland, groups of monks began the practice of peregrinatio, “going forth into strange countries.” The peregrini set off alone or in small groups in tiny coracles made of willow and animal hide, abandoning themselves to the winds and currents of the North Atlantic. A journey into the unknown.
“We moderns find it difficult to grasp the enormity of such an undertaking. Given how frequently we travel, we barely notice the existential threshold crossed upon leaving home. The peregrini remind us that we go on pilgrimage not to consume experience, but to be consumed. To feel again the porous borders between our inner and outer lives. If our rational age has obscured what Seamus Heaney called ‘a marvelous or magical view of the world,’ pilgrimage helps us find it again.
“In this class we will take a very ancient metaphor—the journey—and use it to explore our lives in the age of climate change, pandemics, and fragile democracies. We’ve all gone forth into a strange country, a journey in which we measure distance in time and cortisol levels rather than miles. Setting off in our coracles of narrative—essay, memoir, literary journalism, travel writing, nature writing—we’ll use our peregrinations to map our inner lives against the great stories of our age. We will write our physical journeys (working from memory), and we will write about shelter, intimacy with place, our yearning to be at home. As we traverse the continuum between pilgrimage and place-making, we will discuss various craft topics of literary nonfiction: form, character development (including place-as-character), narrative arc, and, perhaps most important, how to create the fictional ‘I’ that is your nonfiction narrator.”
“The Landscape of the Lyric Essay” with Molly McCully Brown: “The lyric essay combines the density, muscle, and music of the poem with the expansiveness, narrative momentum, and overt desire to engage with information of the essay form. Tied to the original notion of an essay as an effort, a trying, an attempt at making sense, its combined allegiances to the fragment and the whole, the actual and the imaginative, the image and the story, make it the perfect form for exploring and charting the landscapes—both exterior and interior—that make and mark our lives.
“Designed as an opportunity for poets craving a little space to move around, for essayists hungry to drill down to the core of language, or for any writer longing for a chance to experiment, investigate, and attempt, this generative workshop will serve as an introduction to the associative logic of the lyric essay and a chance to try your own hand at the form.
“In class we’ll read and unpack lyric essays from a variety of writers; work together to identify some unique features and possibilities of the form; write in response to prompts designed to help us explore a variety of geographical, sociological, emotional, and intellectual landscapes; and share and discuss our work as it develops. My hope is that you leave the workshop with many attempts and beginnings which might prove fertile ground for later work, and with at least one piece that feels more complete, or further along in its development.”
“Writing Research-Based Narratives for Young Adults” with Marilyn Nelson: “Our curiosity can nourish our reading and our writing, which can nourish the curiosity of our young readers and encourage them to ask questions and follow their own research paths. In this class we will examine some books recently published for middle-grade and young adult readers and based to varying degrees on historical events, asking what questions led to the necessary research, how the research was conducted, and how the material was organized and presented so it is appropriate for younger readers. How do we write for younger readers? How might an author write over their heads? How might an author write down to them? What questions does an author allow to linger? How much information is too much? How does an author find the right voice?”
“Developing Your Authentic Voice” with Charles Jones: “This workshop will focus on teaching artists how to bring their authentic selves to the craft of songwriting and successfully communicate what they want their audiences to hear and feel. We will listen to the music of some of the greatest songwriters of all time and examine what we feel when we listen back. We will explore why we connect deeply with some music, look at the connective tissue these masters created in their songs, and learn how we apply these techniques and tools to our own craft in service of our own unique stories and voices.”
“The Creative and Spiritual Practice of Calligraphy” with David Chang: “From the practical to the ethereal, writing a letter by hand offers a deeper connection to the text and to the viewer. We will cover both aspects of the art form of calligraphy as we learn the basics—including developing your own personal handwriting style—and learn to use handwriting as a creative practice that can also forge a deeper spiritual practice. Through meditational writing we will explore the art of handwriting as a tool for personal expression and as a means to connect with ourselves and also with others.”
“Landscapes and the Art of Seeing” with Suzanne Dittenberg: “In Sargy Mann’s article ‘On Cezanne’ he opposes the popular notion that Paul Cezanne was intentionally distorting the landscape through superimposed affectated abstraction, re-tooling visual information to titillating effect. Instead, Mann makes the case that Cezanne’s painting practice was more straightforward. He describes Cezanne as a relatively unremarkable draftsman who gave himself intensely to the act of looking. ‘As dedicated a realist as you could ever find.’ In Cezanne’s letters, we are given a window into his motivations when painting. He writes, ‘Now the theme to develop is that, whatever our temperaments or power in the presence of nature may be, we must render the image of what we see, forgetting every-thing that existed before us. Which, I believe, must permit the artist to give his entire personality whether great or small.’
“This is a class about seeing. Observational painting serves as a means to explore one’s individual spirit when encountering nature. Each day we will gather together on Zoom and also venture out to work en plein air in our own vicinities. Painting and drawing will serve as a mechanism for finding a new lens with which to view the natural world. A better understanding of nature’s underlying frameworks will result.
“Through daily discussion of drawing and painting techniques, we will cover basic strategies for seeing relative proportions, identifying values structure and understanding color in context. We will also address the use of limited palettes, strategies for achieving harmonious color and methods of paint application. Each afternoon will include time for reflection on the day’s process, experience and results.”
“Contemporary Visual Artists Read the Bible” with Aaron Rosen: “The mere mention of a contemporary artist reading the Bible summons competing stereotypes. On one side stands the artist as clamoring missionary, producing pious kitsch. On the other sits the talented but godless iconoclast, scorning the Bible to the applause of intellectuals. It’s high time to get beyond these stereotypes, rooted in the culture wars of the 1980s, yet sadly back in fashion. There are brilliant artists of faith working with the Bible who have the power to challenge even the most ardent atheists, aesthetically and theologically. And there are artists without a spiritual bone in their bodies who engage scripture in ways that can teach devout viewers a thing or two about faith.
“In this seminar, we will see the Bible with fresh eyes, with the help of cutting-edge art across multiple media, from painting to video to virtual reality. Not only will they look at art, they’ll talk to top-notch artists themselves, who will join us by video from their studios around the world, from Los Angeles to London to Lahore. As one of the world’s foremost experts on religion and art, as well as a practicing curator, Dr. Rosen brings together scholarly and practical insights. And as a Jew married to an Episcopal priest, he has a special interest in how art can help us see difference more clearly and creatively at the same time.”
“How Place Becomes Poetry in Cinema” with Jeffrey Overstreet: “For most filmmakers, place is just a backdrop. But great artists of cinema know that place is as influential and as eloquent as any character. Whether he’s in the heat of Texas or the despair of a divided Berlin, director Wim Wenders is listening to what his location has to say. Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee both read New York City closely, but they see very different cities and zones defined by differing forms of prejudice. We’ll consider how one story, told by both Yasujiro Ozu and Claire Denis in different locations, is transformed by the context in which it is told. And we’ll watch the world opened up by the cinematographers of Terrence Malick as well as the animators Tomm Moore and Martin Rosen. A variety of special guests—filmmakers, film critics, and scholars—will join us for these journeys as we watch how human beings are shaped by the ground beneath their feet. The current guest list [subject to change] includes Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister), Justin Chang (film critic for the Los Angeles Times), Dr. Yelena Bailey (author of How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America), and Doug Strong (My Angel Larry, River Road).”
“The Art of Contemplative Reading” with Richard Chess: “In this seminar, we’ll explore reading practices (poetry and prose) that may help us cultivate a contemplative mind. As we practice directing our attentions to different aspects of our experiences as readers—noting our physical experience, quieting our inner voices to enable us to hear more clearly the voice of a text, discerning the difference between noting elements of the text itself and commenting on, reacting to, or interpreting the text—we may also discover ways of engaging with texts (mostly literary) that will help us with our practice as artists and/or our spiritual practices. We’ll also do some writing—reflective writing and generative creative writing—to explore writing itself as a contemplative practice.”
PLAYLIST: I can’t keep up with all the quality Christian (or, for artists who eschew that label, spiritually inflected?) music recordings that are out there—recent releases as well as back catalogs dating as far back as the thirties. There really is a breadth, and I sometimes get frustrated when I hear people claim otherwise. (Yes, there’s a lot of really crummy Christian music too . . . but that doesn’t mean the entire genre should be dismissed!) During this season of Ordinary Time I’m going to endeavor to release a monthly Spotify playlist consisting of a random assortment of thirty psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, each by a different artist. Here’s June’s:
CALL TO ARTISTS:8th Catholic Arts Biennial: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has issued a call for submissions for its eighth biannual juried exhibition of Christian-themed art. “This Biennial encourages submissions that expand representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, biblical narratives, and the lives of the saints beyond Eurocentric presentations. Artwork made by women and persons of color is strongly encouraged. In addition to depictions of traditional Christian subjects, artists are urged to submit works that address social concerns from perspectives of faith pertinent to the contemporary moment. Works investigating the diversity of the human experience enlivened by Gospel values are also desired.”
Artists can be of any religious or denominational affiliation and can submit up to three works by the deadline of June 25. In addition to being exhibited September 6–October 29, 2021, at the Verostko Center for the Arts, the finalists will also be eligible for a top prize of $1,000, plus other cash prizes. The juror this year is David Brinker, director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University. (The painting on the promotional poster is The Holy Family by Janet McKenzie, a previous winner.)
>> “Prarthana Kelkaname” (Hear Our Prayer): Jijo Hebron, a Christian worship leader from Kerala, India, and his wife Niveda Jijo released this YouTube recording on Sunday, in which they sing to God in the Malayalam language. The song’s English meaning is below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Hear our prayer and supplication, oh Lord It is the promise in your Son’s name: Whatever we ask, it will be granted. There is no one to take care of my worries apart from you Who stands as my father and mother
>> “Morning Prayer” by Langhorne Slim: From the album Strawberry Mansion, released this January.
ANIMATED SHORT: If Anything Happens I Love You: “In the aftermath of tragedy, two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child.” Written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier and animated by Youngran Nho and team, this thirteen-minute film won Best Animated Short at the 2021 Oscars. It’s amazing how much I feel for these characters after such a short time of getting to know them. Streaming on Netflix.
ARTICLE: “Art and Interfaith Conversation” by Andrew Smith: Birmingham, England, is a religiously diverse city, home not only to Christians but also to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others. The Church of England recognizes this rich presence and has on staff a director of interfaith relations for the bishop of Birmingham, Canon Dr. Andrew Smith. Smith is interested in how art and artifacts can be used to develop conversations between people of different faiths and to create new conversations, and here he discusses a Birmingham Conversations project he led along that vein: multifaith group tours at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and St. Philip’s Cathedral. These he embarked on with a posture primarily of learning, not teaching. [HT: Still Life]
Smith served as a consultant for the museum’s faith gallery, which highlights religious objects from various traditions. He discusses the importance of honoring the integrity of each object’s spiritual significance, and some of the difficulties of creating a space that’s welcoming to people of all faiths when certain faiths regard certain imagery as problematic or even forbid it. He also shares some of the responses of non-Christian participants to specific works of Christian art, in both the museum and the cathedral. Some from the latter are recorded in the following video:
The Birmingham Conversations also commissioned two local artists, Jake Lever and Mandy Ross, to produce work informed by their visits over a yearlong period to different places of worship around Birmingham.
EXHIBITION: Otherwise/Revival, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, April 9–June 26, 2021: Curated by Jasmine McNeal and Cara Megan Lewis, this group exhibition visualizes the impact of the historic Black church—specifically the Black Pentecostal movement—on contemporary artists. Included are several artists I’ve featured on the blog before—Lava Thomas [here], Kehinde Wiley [here], Clementine Hunter [here], Letitia and Sedrick Huckaby [here]—plus twenty-six others.
I regret that I won’t be able to see the exhibition in person, but there’s a wealth of relevant content available on the gallery’s website, including photos, artist bios and statements, and commentaries. I haven’t fully delved in yet, but some of the artist names are new to me, and I look forward to jumping over to their websites to learn more. There’s also a series of free events that have been scheduled. The premiere of the virtual music performance yes! lord by Ashton T. Crawley and a symposium on the Azusa Street Revival have already passed (both are archived online for on-demand viewing), but here are some upcoming opportunities you can reserve a spot for:
May 1: “Jazz and the Gospel” with Daniel E. Walker, Ashon T. Crawley, Dario Robleto, Norman Teague, Lava Thomas, and Folayemi (Fo) Wilson
ARTICLE: “5 Films About the Beauty of Resurrection” by Brett McCracken: “Resurrection’ tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.” One of his selections is Happy as Lazzaro, which I saw last year and enjoyed:
>> Hymns I by Lovkn: Steven Lufkin is a singer-songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, recording under the name Lovkn. His latest EP, a collection of eight acoustic hymn covers, was released April 2. (Also, he’s currently raising funds to record an album of original songs, to be released later this year: kickstarter.com/projects/lovkn/new-album-2021.)
>> Prayers for the Time of Trial by Joel Clarkson: Released April 7, this EP comprises five original SATB choral compositions by Joel Clarkson, which he recorded with his sister Joy Clarkson. My favorite is the first, “Lighten Our Darkness,” a setting of the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Aid Against Perils: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The other four are “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (Beneath Thy Protection), a third-century hymn to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos; “Hail King,” a poem by Joel’s other sister, Sarah Clarkson, that marvels how rocky cliffs and sea waves and herring gulls sing God’s praises in their own way; “Ubi Caritas,” an ancient hymn centered on the theme of Christian charity; and the simple benediction “May the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.”
ORTHODOX CHANT: Russian Kontakion of the Departed: At Prince Philip’s funeral service at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, a choir of four sang, among other pieces, the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, translated into English by William John Birkbeck and arranged by Sir Walter Parratt. “The Russian Kontakion of the Departed is an ancient Kiev chant with its origins in the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This moving chant expresses the sorrow of grief but reminds us of the Christian hope of everlasting life; in the face of sadness, we sing Hallelujahs.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting. Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man: and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth, and unto earth shall we return: for so thou didst ordain, when thou created me saying: Dust thou art und unto dust shalt thou return. All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
VISUAL LITURGY: “After Ezekiel” by Madeleine Jubilee Saito: Remember those flip books you probably encountered as a kid—the ones with a series of images that gradually change from one page to the next, giving the illusion of animation when viewed in quick succession? Well, this is a digital version of that. In 2019 cartoonist and illustrator Madeleine Jubilee Saito created an image sequence intended to be swiftly clicked through as part of the Easter Vigil at a church in Boston. It was inspired by the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). Very compelling!
11. The Forty-Year-Old Version, written and directed Radha Blank: Radha plays a fictionalized version of herself in this feature debut of hers, a thoughtful blend of comedy and drama that’s intricate and fresh. Her character is a New York City playwright who, desperate for a breakthrough before turning forty, decides to reinvent herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime. The film addresses the arts industry’s sometimes stifling expectations of Black artists, which has in its mind what the Black experience (as if there were only one) needs to look like. Producers, for example, want Radha’s Black characters to talk and act a certain way and to fit into a particular storyline, and they try to convince her to make adjustments to her writing to make her plays more palatable to white audiences, who comprise the bulk of ticket sales.
With humor and insight, Blank explores this struggle along with, more broadly, middle-age Black womanhood, which includes for her, in addition to navigating career roadblocks, the experiences of losing a parent, finding human connection, and learning a new art form.
Stream on Netflix.
12. Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell: I have mixed feelings about revenge thrillers, which ask viewers to root for vindictive outcomes. But this one, though it takes up certain tropes of the genre, subverts others. “We’re used to the idea of a violent journey, but I wanted to look at how a real woman might take revenge, and I had an idea that it would be kind of tricky and malevolent and existentially threatening, rather than something more run-of-the-mill and AK-47 based,” said first-time writer-director Emerald Fennell (who I know as Patsy from Call the Midwife, and you might know as Camilla from The Crown!).
Having dropped out of medical school following the rape of her best friend Nina, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has developed a compulsive desire to teach “nice guys” who take advantage of women a lesson. She feigns drunkenness in clubs on a regular basis, and when a man inevitably takes her back to his home and gets handsy, he is in for a harrowing confrontation. A critique of rape culture, in which having nonconsensual sex with drunk women is normalized, trivialized, and excused, the film shows how not all rapists are obvious creeps; a lot of them are “normal,” seemingly caring individuals who are thus almost always given the benefit of the doubt over their accusers.
13. Soul, directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers; written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers: Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a part-time middle-school band teacher in New York City who does side gigs as a jazz pianist. Music is his passion. At the beginning of the film, though, he dies suddenly and then inadvertently stumbles off the skyway escalator to the Great Beyond, landing in the “Great Before,” where preincarnate souls are waiting to be born. There he’s enlisted to mentor an ornery soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who doesn’t want to go to Earth, which she imagines is just all dirty and bad. But when she mistakenly ends up in Joe’s body and lives his life for a day, she finds such wonder in it—a fresh haircut, twirling maple seeds, the smell and taste of pizza, the thrill of riding the subway or of putting on a sharp-looking suit, laughter and camaraderie. I’m reminded in some ways of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), in which an angel longs to experience life in the physical world.
Soul is a celebration of the inherent goodness of life, despite its challenges and disappointments; it’s about finding joy in the ordinary, and purpose wherever we’re at. It subverts the cultural narrative that every human being has a single defining “purpose in life,” that each one is “born to (fill in the blank).” Instead, it acknowledges that passions can evolve and change (for example, the barber Dez used to want to be a veterinarian), and that several can coexist alongside one another. And while passions can fuel us, they alone are not our reason for living.
Stream on Disney+.
14. Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm: In this dramedy from Denmark, four middle-age men who teach at a high school test the hypothesis that maintaining a constant blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% will improve their quality of life by making them more relaxed, self-confident, open, fun to be around, and better at their jobs. But when their experiment gets out of hand, there are consequences on marriage and career.
Though centered on intoxication and male friendship, this is no slapstick buddy comedy, nor is it a one-note cautionary tale against the perils of excessive drinking. It both celebrates the joys of losing yourself in drink and also shows how punishing regular overindulgence can be. Still, the finale is amazingly exuberant and life-affirming—and gives a chance for Martin’s (Mads Mikkelsen) “jazz ballet” to finally come out!
Stream on Hulu.
15. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn; written by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen: I’m a sucker for the “unlikely friendships” genre, and this one is so well done. When single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her shy eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) move into the house of her recently deceased sister, Cody befriends an elderly white war veteran and widower named Del (Brian Dennehy), who lives next-door. They bring each other out of their shells.
Stream on Showtime.
16. The Invisible Man, written and directed by Leigh Whannell: The Invisible Man is based loosely on the classic H. G. Wells sci-fi horror novel of the same name, in which an optical scientist invents chemicals capable of rendering bodies invisible and then uses this discovery to execute a reign of terror. Whannell brings the story into our present time and centers it on the terror of domestic abuse and its machinations—financial, physical, and emotional control—and especially of not being believed about said abuse. In Whannell’s version, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) finally succeeds, it would seem, in escaping her abusive live-in boyfriend, multimillionaire tech genius Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She then learns of his suicide and feels immense relief but soon starts to suspect it is a hoax. Her suspicions are confirmed when she is repeatedly stalked and tormented by an “invisible man.” Because the police and even her friends and family think she’s crazy, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands.
Stream on HBO Max.
17. Blow the Man Down, written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy: Set in a New England coastal town, this dark comedy crime thriller follows sisters Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) Connolly in their attempt to cover up a gruesome run-in with a dangerous man. Along the way they are exposed more and more to the town’s underbelly, which includes, as I heard one reviewer refer to it as, a “beauty parlor mafia”!
Stream on Amazon Prime.
18. Mank, directed by David Fincher; written by Jack Fincher: I’m a huge fan of Citizen Kane, so this drama about the writing of its first draft by the witty Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was really enjoyable for me, not least because it’s full of visual references to Kane! Orson Welles is officially credited as cowriter of Kane, as he heavily revised Mankiewicz’s script, but Mank argues that Welles’s screenwriting contributions were negligible, and that Mankiewicz deserves more credit for the success of Kane than he has typically been given.
The film gives a glimpse into the 1930s Hollywood studio system in all its glamor and corruption and shows the real-life inspirations for the characters of Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander Kane: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Stream on Netflix.
19. His House, written and directed by Remi Weekes: This haunted-house film uses the supernatural to explore the specters of the refugee experience. Married couple Bol and Rial Majur (played by Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku) have made a harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan, but they struggle to adjust to their new life in England, as ghosts have followed them there.
Stream on Netflix.
20. Young Ahmed, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne: Under the influence of a radical imam, a Belgian teenager (Idir Ben Addi) embraces an extremist interpretation of the Quran, which spurs him to a heinous act. He is taken to a rehabilitation center, where staff try to loosen the grip of his zealotry and help him develop a truer, healthier practice of Islam.
I’m a big cinephile, but because I’m not sure how to write about films for an Art & Theology audience, you may not know that about me! Anyway, I wanted to share my top twenty films from last year (all released in the US in 2020). For each I’ll give a brief description and comments, followed by the trailer. If they’re streaming for “free” through a subscription service, I’ve noted which one; otherwise, most are available for online rental, or you might also check to see if your local library has a DVD copy. A few are showing in select theaters.
Because so many big-budget blockbuster films had their releases delayed because of COVID (reliant, as they are, on theatrical releases), it has given the chance for smaller-scale, quieter films to come to the fore—which are usually the type I enjoy most anyway. I like films that are character-driven and/or that make me feel something. As I’ve said before, watching films grows our capacity for empathy, as we encounter characters from different backgrounds and in different situations and are given the opportunity to see things through their eyes.
In this list, which I will complete in a second post tomorrow, the characters include a new member of the deaf community who’s struggling to come to terms with his disability, a Midwestern farmer of Korean vegetables and a pair of entrepreneurial Pac Northwest settlers (new homes, new ventures), a widow who’s out of work and houseless, a survivor of domestic violence, a daughter walking with her dad through a debilitating illness, a London teenager forced to take on adult responsibilities but bolstered up by a strong sisterhood, a crime victim whose forgiveness of her perpetrator initiates healing in multiple directions, a young employee let down by her company and debating whether to make moral compromises to keep her job, a middle school teacher with other career aspirations, a struggling playwright whose race pigeonholes her in the industry, and a refugee couple settling into a new country with a huge weight of grief. Whether the contexts are near or far from our own, we bear witness to these characters’ journeys, attending to their fears and traumas, their stresses and disappointments, their joys and triumphs.
As you’ll see, it’s been a fantastic year for women filmmakers!
1. Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder; written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder: When Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a thrash-metal drummer, loses his hearing, he’s in danger of relapsing into substance abuse, so with the support of his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), he checks in to a home for deaf people recovering from addiction. Ruben is a fixer and is obsessed with control, and his immediate and persistent impulse upon experiencing hearing loss is to pursue an expensive corrective surgery so that he can return to life as usual. The film’s sound design, which lets us hear the muffled noises Ruben is hearing, helps us better feel his frustration.
The film is about Ruben learning how to be deaf. It’s about disappointment, acceptance, and self-knowledge, and the crucial role community plays in helping us cope with or achieve those things. Against his wishes, Ruben enters a world completely alien to him. He has to learn sign language and how to make new relationships. It’s beautiful to see Ruben’s perspective slowly shift as he learns to regard deafness not as a handicap but as a way of life, a culture.
Stream on Amazon Prime.
2. Minari, written and directed Lee Isaac Chung: In this semiautobiographical film set in the 1980s, a Korean immigrant family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), wants to break out of the chicken sexing industry and start his own produce farm. (He says he wants his children to see him succeed at something.) As the Yis put down roots in the rugged Ozarks and prepare and plant the large plot of land they’ve bought, they encounter typical struggles, on top of which is the heart condition of their young son, David (played by the adorable Alan Kim, whose interviews light me up every time!). They end up flying in grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) from Korea to help with childcare, and David has difficulties connecting with her because she doesn’t match his idea of an American grandma.
The American Dream, biculturalism, marriage, and family are key themes in Minari.
3. Nomadland, written and directed by Chloé Zhao (based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder): When the gypsum plant in the company town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down during the Great Recession in 2011, the entire town is shuttered, its zip code discontinued, and its residents displaced. Fern (Frances McDormand), a recent widow in her sixties, is one of them. She sells most of her possessions and heads west in her van, searching for work wherever it’s available, and finding connection—with people, with the land—along the way.
The film explores the growing subculture of “workampers,” or, as they more commonly call themselves, nomads—people who, either for a sense of adventure or because of deteriorated economic circumstances, lead itinerant lives, following temporary work. It blurs the line between drama and documentary, as most of the cast, including Linda May and Charlene Swankie, are nonactors playing versions of themselves. Their real-life stories heavily informed the script.
Stream on Hulu.
4. Dick Johnson Is Dead, directed by Kirsten Johnson: A joyous and uplifting documentary in which the filmmaker confronts the impending death of her father, who has dementia. I wrote about it here.
Stream on Netflix.
5. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jon Raymond: I’m not typically a fan of westerns, but this one hooked me. Set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, it follows Otis, known as Cookie (John Magaro), a lowly cook for a band of trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant wanted for murder. The two meet at a trading post, and a friendship develops, which constitutes the core of the film. (Its epigraph is a quote by William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”)
The film is also a subtle critique of capitalism. When a local official buys a cow, the first in the territory, the enterprising King-Lu hatches a plan for him and Cookie to steal milk from it each night so that they can make “oily cakes” (fried dough) to sell. It’s either exploit or be exploited, King-Lu reasons.
6. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, written and directed by Eliza Hittman: At the beginning of the film, seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) learns she is pregnant, but she can’t obtain an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. So her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) accompanies her to New York City, where the abortion can be performed without that restriction, to support her through the trauma.
When Autumn is interviewed by a counselor at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York about an hour into the film, it’s one of the first times we see her, usually so reserved, exhibit emotion—and laudably, Flanigan plays this moment without an ounce of melodrama. “Has a partner ever refused to use protection?” “Has a partner ever been violent?” “Have you ever been forced into a sexual act?” (She is asked to respond to each question with one of the four answers in the film’s title.) Here we learn how little of her sexual history has been in her control.
Though reviews of and promotions for the film have tended to focus on the importance of “a woman’s right to choose,” you don’t have to be an abortion supporter (I’m not) to appreciate this film. It’s not very polemical. It’s simply a portrait of one girl’s experience, and it’s painted with such tenderness and realism.
Stream on HBO Max.
7. The Painter and the Thief, directed by Benjamin Ree: A documentary about the unlikely friendship between a Czech artist and the man who stole two of her paintings and then lost them on the black market. I wrote about it here.
Stream on Hulu.
8. The Assistant, written and directed by Kitty Green: One of several to come out in the wake of the #MeToo movement, this film is uncomfortable from start to finish—intentionally so. It’s a different kind of thriller, the dread building every banal scene after the next as Jane (Julia Garner), a recently hired assistant to a Hollywood studio executive, goes about her daily work routine and starts discovering some serious abuses of power in the company that target young women. The monster boss, who is never seen, is clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Not much “happens” in The Assistant, but it succeeds in conveying a sense of being trapped in a corrupt system of misogyny, and it reveals how easy it is for those who witness particular offenses to keep quiet in order to protect their careers.
Stream on Hulu.
9. Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde; written by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen: “In 1800s England, a well-meaning but selfish young woman meddles in the love lives of her friends”—and learns a lesson. I loved the 2009 film adaptation of this classic novel that stars Romola Garai (she is still my favorite Emma), and the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow is also much celebrated, so I didn’t think there was need for another attempt. But I thoroughly enjoyed this, with Anya Taylor-Joy (of The Queen’s Gambit) playing the title role. Austen was a humorist, and her comedic flair comes across with great effect here. A few things that stand out to me when compared to previous adaptations are the excellent soundtrack (which includes English folk hymns) and the likability of Harriet (Mia Goth), who is given a little more dimensionality than usual.
Stream on HBO Max.
10. Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron; written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson: A celebration of young female friendship that’s tested when one in the group, nicknamed Rocks (Bukky Bakray), is abandoned by her mother, her only parent, leaving her to care for her little brother. Rocks struggles to take care of meals, bills, apartment upkeep, and childcare while still attending high school, and she also struggles, initially, with letting anyone in, with accepting help. She eventually confides in her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and she and others then rally around Rocks to offer support, though they disagree on what is best, and it leads to some fallout. The film shows the resilience of the plucky and determined Rocks and the immense value of having friends to see you through hard times. The relationship between Rocks, a Nigerian Christian, and Sumaya, a Somali Muslim, is especially poignant; the actors’ chemistry is a joy to watch.