When the Church is gone…

st marys.jpg

“You’ll miss it when the church is gone” was the Yahoo headline that caught my eye this afternoon.  It referred to this article by Madeleine Davies who is the deputy news editor at the Church Times.

She references caustic and patronising remarks by Barbara Ellen in The Guardian in which she, along with many others, sneer at the anachronism that is Church life in the 21st century.

Except it isn’t anachronistic.

I know because I am a churchgoer, albeit not one of resolute faith and not one with an unblemished attendance record.

Like many, I am the product of a childhood of well-meaning indoctrination.  In my case into Roman Catholicism.

I often read, on social media channels with unhidden glee, the defamation of this particular doctrine and it saddens me.

Firstly it saddens me that the excesses and undefendable actions of a minority of our clergy has tarnished the faith as a whole.  I also, particularly on visits to Italy, squirm at the absolute lack of inhibition when building our altars of early centuries bling.

Ancient papacies (nay, possibly even recent ones) stink of hypocrisy and political pap.  But not, I think, the current one.  And not, as I gathered from my recent trip to Poland, that of John Paul II who is a giant of a man.

The conservative leanings of the Catholic hierarchy towards old rhetoric and the strict adherence to creationism in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary make me uncomfortable.

It doesn’t sit well with my education and lifetime of reading.

But, and it’s a big but, Madeliene Davis is absolutely right about the role of the church in today’s society (all churches, faiths, religions) because, even though they gradually reduce in number and become cheap boozers or flash penthouses, those that remain are at the heart and soul, yes soul, of their communities.

They tend the aged, they democratise the community and in some I know of they can be outstanding boozers, social clubs, restaurants, cafes.

They and their members (and clergy) provide irreplaceable social services and are hubs of charitable activity.

Madeliene Davis is right.

Even without the religious needs that churches satisfy they make an immense contribution to our society and I am proud to declare that although I am one of the worst drummers in musical history my community tolerate me, provide me with a regular gig and in some instances actually rather like that a drum, a mandolin, a violin and an organ can sometimes make sweet music.

Shalom brothers and sisters.


St Francis of Assisi.


Our new Pope opted for Frankie’s nom de plume and today at mass our priest – the wise old Western Islander, Fr Tony, gave us an interesting insight into his inspiration.

I was particularly taken by this quote from St Francis that he referenced in his Homily.

“Preach the Gospel at all times (and use words if necessary).”

Wise words indeed, particularly in these times where religion is used as a front for the most heinous of behaviours.

Ghandi made a particularly interesting observation (again my Source is Fr Tony) when he said “The trouble with you Christians is that you have great preachings but don’t live up to them.” (I paraphrase I’m sure).  That observation would benefit not just Christians of course.

Think The Diving Bell and The Butterfly meets 40 Year old Virgin and you still won’t be close

21 hours a day.  No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

21 hours a day. No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

This is a remarkable hidden gem of a movie directed with grace and understatement by Ben Lewin, a 67 year old director whose career has little in the way of highlights or recognition.  Until now that is.

His main protagonists, John Hawkes who was Oscar nominated for Winter’s Bone, Helen Hunt (who won one for As Good as it Gets) and William H Macy (Fargo nomination) tell a story as touching as any you will ever see that tries to make sense of whether sex out of wedlock as a (disabled) Catholic can be tolerated by those of great faith.

The good news?  It can.

What makes this trio of understated performances so remarkable is that they are all so extreme, yet constrained.

Firstly, John Hawkes (Mark) plays a 38 year old quadriplegic (a consequence of childhood polio), with a fine sense of humour, who lives 21 hours a day in an iron lung and desires nothing more than to have full penetrative sex and yet does not turn the role into a freakshow.

Secondly, Helen Hunt  spends much of the movie completely naked (as brave as it gets at 49) teaching Mark how to suck her nipples effectively, perform passable cunnilingus and generally satisfy her and himself – she’s a sex therapist.

And thirdly, William H Macy plays a cool dude Catholic priest that assumes the role of God, granting Mark the dispensation to get his rocks off free from the guilt of mortal sin.

What’s more, the supporting cast all put in excellent and mostly touching shifts that add to the overall quality of the movie.

It’s in places hilarious (although Seth MacFarlane would hardly agree), breathtakingly taboo (without offending anyone – including the four pensioners sat behind us) and moving.

What makes it work so wonderfully is what it doesn’t do or say.  Whilst issues surrounding morality must sit full square at the centre of the (based on true) story it’s not hammered home.  It makes no judgement and that’s in no small part down to the skill of director Lewin.

Very few people have seen this movie, more’s the pity, and the screening we saw was achingly badly attended.  Nonetheless it cost only $1m to make and grossed a modest (but profitable) $5m in the US.  I think it’s a sleeper of potentially Sideways proportions that will, over time, make the funders very large returns as its absolute honesty and sincerity wins it advocates like me.

Anne Hathaway is unbettable for Best Supporting actress at this year’s big hooley and she is by a distance the best thing about Les Miserables, but it’s a cameo role.  This, on the other hand, is a career defining moment for Hunt who would win every day in my book.  And I may indeed have a small wager on her at 25/1.

Life of Pi

I'd be tempted to give life of Pi this score out of 3 (3.14159265
09) but it so annoys me when people talk about giving 110% that I 
just can't do it.

So, instead, I'll just have to settle for an old fashioned 9/10. 
Now, let's get this straight.  Life of Pi has just shown that there
 is life left in 3D.  It may be, on the whole, a gimmick but the 
exception can still prove the point.  Only two movies have made 
the 3D entrance fee worth the extra IMHO, Avatar and this. 

It's a tough movie for bibliophiles to even want to see because the book is so magnificent (in my all time top ten probably) and many 
I've spoken to who love it equally are just downright scared that 
Ang Lee was going to blow it.  The odds were strongly in favour of 
 that happening because it's a pretty full on philosophical workout. 
 So full credit has to go to Fox pictures for shelling out $120 million
on the ultimate movie gamble. 

How Ang manages to retain the existential angst of the book AND make 
a blockbuster movie that holds the attention from start to finish 
(yes, including the pretty turgid first 100 pages) is not only anyone's 
guess but a cinematic achievement of considerable merit. 

It's the storytelling that wins the day but it's wrapped up in 
cinematography of the very highest order.  So many times one gasps out 
loud at what's on screen that it's like a day out in a theme park. 
Surely the Oscar for this is certain to go to Claudio Miranda 
(Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, Benjamin Button). 

The acting is universally good but it's the tiger, Richard Parker, 
and his four legged companions that really steal the show.  CGI 
has never, ever been this good. This might sound like it's the 
technology that carries the movie but don't think that.  It's an 
honest, stunning exploration of the true meaning of life, 
religion and truth and it’s an absolute must see.  

I would not discount it winning best movie come early March and 
I certainly wouldn't grudge it.  

Ang Lee's finest hour.

Cross cultural religious stuff happened today that was really interesting.

I played drums, as I most usually do at mass in South Queensferry.  I’m not so anal about my religion that I HAVE to be there every Sunday, but I try.

Anyway, some good rhythms.

Then I headed up to St Giles Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, to see a friend of mine sing in the choir.  If you know anything about Scottish history you’ll know that that’s not a Catholic worship place but it is very Christian.

I loved it and can recommend Sunday Service there at 11.30.

An extraordinary choir and an amazing location, set off by this stunning angel…

And a great organ…

Tree of Life. Terence Malick’s ultimate movie.

One of Lubezki's stunning visual captures.

Tree of Life is a sensational 90 minute movie wrapped up, to my mind, in a highly flawed 150 minute art installation.

It’s the film Malick clearly wants to become his legacy and I so wish he’d really pulled it off.  Apparently the critics at Cannes were booing and laughing at its finale and to a point I can understand why.  I’ll bet they were enraptured through the middle section.

Malick’s idea is to create a movie about a man in his 50’s looking back on the inconsequence (but to him monumental importance)  of his tiny, but in many ways typical, life set against the greatness of the universe, its creation and God’s role in all this.

So we open with an hour or so of Kubrick’s classic 2001; a space Odyssey mashed up with the Best of David Attenburgh and a tiny little bit of Jurassic Park thrown in.  It’s about the birth of the universe and the creation of man.

For some this has been the most stunning (and it is stunning visually) opening to a film ever made.  To others it’s pretentious twaddle.  I have to say I fell into the latter camp.  It’s way too long and self indulgent.  Malick describes it as a companion piece to the main movie.  If you’ve read the Life of Pi it’s structurally very reminiscent of the first 100 pages which is essentially an essay on the role of religion in life today before the boy and the Tiger set to sea in an unbelievably good yarn.

Incidentally, the Tree of Life ends with a coda recalling the opening hour.  Mercifully shorter; it doesn’t grate as much.

And so, we have a movie embedded in and drawn from, thematically at least, this “meaning of life” wrapper.

And it’s quite, quite beautiful; it very roughly follows the lives of a family in 1950’s Texas.  Middle class I suppose and pretty much the typical Western family.  Dad’s frustrated because he is not an overachiever and at times this has consequences.  But really it’s not that important because it’s not a story as such.

The man in his 50’s who we meet in the “creation sequence”, Sean Penn, is reminiscing on this time, at first dewy eyed but later more critically as he follows his childhood and adolescance that culminates in the death of one of his brothers (not a spoiler as it is revealed in the first frames).

This is Malick’s genius because in this he essentially wraps a universal childhood into 90 minutes of relatively sequential vignettes that absolutely draw the breath at times.  As a baby plays with bubbles, as a group of kids are ecstatically sprayed (innocently ) with a cloud of DDT from a passing lorry, as brothers bicker, as Mum and dad stroke their childrens’ hair and read them bedtime stories.

It’s wonderful.

And then the plot, I say plot but that’s a very loose term because this is not a plotted narrative, develops as we see that the father is actually a pretty heavy handed patriarch.  This section reveals the excellence of Brad Pitt who plays the father movingly and with sufficient restraint to avoid the part lapsing into caricature.

The mother though (a spellbinding performance by Jessica Chastain) is the real heart and soul of the movie because it is her that recites what amounts to a love poem for its first 10 minutes or so; espousing her love of her beautiful sons and her love of god.  The scene is set when she says “there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace”  she implores her boys to follow the path of grace (of God) and she maintains an air of grace throughout.

Her eldest son, Jack, later to appear as Penn is the main protagonist and also performs bewitchingly; a first movie for Hunter McCracken – it will most certainly not be his last.

What makes this film so wonderful is the way that Malick (and his cinematographer Emannuel Lubezki – phenomenal) capture the universal truths of family life without it at any time feeling like cliche.  I felt myself strongly empathising with young Jack, most powerfully as his adolescent rage boils up towards his father and the unfairness of adulthood.  “Don’t do what I do, do what I say.”  It’s visceral.

The Tree of Life is a central and recurring visual metaphor but is handled with subtlety and conviction.

So, with a far shorter art indulgence section this film would have been a 9/10.  With it, it’s a 7.