Okay, here is where it gets tricky. This is the last stop. This is when you finally, after that long night before the dawn, surrender your last vestige of self-centered fear and open like a full flower before the void, trusting the open arms to God to appear and warm thee, arms open to embrace even death and even your enemies and even your own twisted self. Viola! No matter how zombie-rotten you think you've grown all those decades in the dank predator basement soil of your own lacerating wit and delusions you are now as blooming with radiant joy as if you never were a moment without much hydroponics and greenhouse sunshine. Every last tendril is unfurled and unafraid, you bask radiant in the light of -----, whoops, what am I allowed to say? What can I say that won't turn off my reader? Some of my readers will wince if I say God, Lord, Jesus, others will wince if I say anything else--Buddha, Allah, Ganesha, Quetzlocatl, Kali, Indra, Sabra, Jah, Vishnu, Carmine, the door-knob--they'll say those are the wrong names and they have to burn you at the stake or on the cross or hang you from a tree to protect His holy name, but we all know, even they know, those people, the fearful of God, are on the way out. They cannot stand against the love tide. The love tide washes out the hateful fire. The burning Kundalni serpent of awakening swallows and digests the sexual-violence-promoting reptiles of intolerance and false profits. All you have to do to help is love them both without limit. They HATE that! Inverse the Lady MacBeth ratio: appear the fiery serpent but be the flower under it. If you are a man walk tall and roar your love for God and self and truth, but know this: when you hate the person who roars less, or the same, or louder, or when you praise the hottie but stinkeye her un-stunning friend, when you split the dichotomy so that you love one thing but hate its neighbor, you've already lost god, become your own enemy via duality's ugly hear rearing. You can walk tall all you want after that, but you will fool no one. You can't escape my love for you, even then, in that sorry state. May this post bring out to you what it has brought me.
1. Robert Duvall - The Apostle (1997)
I first saw this when I was first getting sober and going to AA and it was when I first realized God was and had been watching and taking care of me all this time through the movies I watched, like a stealth bomber pilot, but the bombs were of love and acceptance dropped throughout my viewing regimen. I was too surly perhaps to dig on that fully, until that moment, or this one. But Robert Duvall did, does dig it. He gets it. He got it in Tender Mercies. He got it in The Great Santini. He got it Tennessee. He got it on the moon. He got it at the diner over steak fries. He got it at the National Air and Space Museum looking at the moon rocket. He found it inside a Mockingbird birch. He found it in the worms under the floorboards in the basements, and he found it in the sunshine through the palm trees, even the smell of napalm in the morning, even the smallest flower and the largest ocean.
But even here his character still has one or two hang-ups, including bashing the cuckold in his nest with a baseball bat and then fleeing the state. In my case it was finding some hip huggers-and-tan booth blonde Scorpio and fawning over her at the exclusion of angry others, getting high on the exclusionary glue fumes of gossip. But I broke through my inner iceberg watching Duvall break through his, sensing some magic in his his high-stepping crazy dance of love for God, and I actually stood up, while alone in my apartment, and started crying right when someone else in Duvall's congregation stood up and we kind of looked at each other across the expanse of the screen like brothers who had both landed on the delivery room floor at the exact same moment.
I never liked Warren Beatty before this movie, but after it I'm a lockstep fan. The man has balls and character. I'm not sure about whether the God part is all there but the holy madness is the same. The bro takes a hit out on himself, and suddenly with nothing to lose starts telling the truth and living in the moment and events begin to crystalize around him with stunning power. His attempts to rap about social issues may be a little douche chill-cringish but get over it! Bulworth rules! I cried like a baby.
Alastair Sim as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1951)
There have been many Scrooges. A big favorite at the Kuersten house is the George C. Scott TVM version. But no one captures the full shamanic enlightenment moment as well as the 1951 Alastair Sim version. The ecstatic morning after the three visits, the sight of Sim's Scrooge cavorting around his bed chambers while his broken-down maid slowly grows hysterical from fear and confusion is a highlight in all holiday moviedom. Like so many movies on this list, it tends to show up on telly right when I most need it. Sim makes me believe the humbug avoidance of the pre-ghost visit, the closed-off heartedness melting with the past and present, the regret and the mortal terror that comes blazing through you when one is finally forced to behold his own inescapable death in full bloom. And the ecstatic release of a second chance, when, as Scrooge notes "I finally know that you know nothing!" is palpable and contagious. One thing he thing at last he knows: loving and supporting the world around you is a pretty smart investment.
3.a. Burt Lancaster - Elmer Gantry (1960)
Burt Lancaster's performance here can be read a zillion ways because it's, like.... a total masterpiece of energy expenditure. Just praising the lord-- no matter how snarky about it all you may think you're being - is still enough to get you high high high, so high you forgive all your trespassers. Sure, Gantry's a hypocrite, but when he storms downtown to smash up the bars and whore houses he does so with love in his heart, and when his church burns, and everyone turns on him, he's still got the love in his heart, which is why he's willing to share the holy trinity number three with...
3.b. Gary Cooper as Sgt. York (1941)
York's a wandering through the rain with hate and confusion in his sharpshooter heart until he stumbles on a church, inside they're singing "That Old Time Religion" and he comes in and slowly (in a scene similar to one in Elmer Gantry) is 'found' through song and acceptance. He then has to wrestle with some weighty issues before trudging off to war.
Though directed by Hawks this is neither a Hawks film nor a war film, per se, which is why I didn't like it as a youth. It's a peace film. York's a hero, not for how many Germans he kills but for many he takes prisoner. A sharpshooter in war is a pretty serious weapon, especially in WWI, and if he's peaceful then maybe enemy soldiers will get lucky and just get shot in a rifle shoulder, and the foot if they try to run. There's no need to kill someone if you're a sharpshooter. Not if you got that old time religion.
Of course, America doesn't want to hear that kind of stuff now, maybe, but one day, America, one day you'll be hateful in the rain and ready for the sound of singing.
3.c. James Stewart - It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Then again, maybe America is in some way already saved. Here's Jimmy Stewart through the eye of the needle, ravaged by the greed and thwarted desires that for so long kept him trapped in the prison of Potter's Town. But Clarence gets his wings and Stewart's hard work in the community pays off, as it must, by karma's inexorable law. Asking for help is, of course, incredibly hard for those who usually don't need it. Blessed are the poor and meek and deformed for, in having to depend on others, they are compelled to either dwell on the snowy bridge of misery or come in from the cold to gratitude and harmony with one another. Everyone may groan and sigh at the thought of seeing such a 'corny' film, so traditional and typical, but no one escapes the cathartic rush of tears and communal ecstasy when this film is over.
4. María Alche as The Holy Girl (2004)
Lucretia Martel is a complex genius of warmth from Argentina. Their culture's rich heritage of tactile affection is so brilliantly captivated in her films that it may be years before she's ever given her true due, before she's ever elevated in critic's minds to the level of saint, for her inter-class multi-generational Altmanesque overlap tapestry woven with a forward momentum that makes you giddy even as you can't understand, at first, half of what is going on. It's about a girl enraptured by her newly found gift of prayer, and the sublime joy involved in forgiving everyone of their trespasses, even the pedophile who brushes up against her in the street. Of course that's the tragic, strange angle, the immense sadness of those still sick and suffering in their mistaken, harsh refusal to admit they need and crave human contact and acceptance. Martel captures it all in a Buenos Aires hotel at which the holy girl and her friend's moms both live and work as maids. The camera sneaks around like a restless nosy child, a tactile counterpoint to the actors who have a five AM flush from all their monkey grooming and the hot air of the laundry presses.
5. Harvey Keitel - Bad Lieutenant (1991)
Here's a movie that's like a long painful ladder, from heaven to hell and up it scales, naked, masturbating, empty, filled, vulnerable, angry, terrified, the mighty and fearless actor Harvey Keitel. I used to love to watch this movie high on Rocket bourbon, reefer, mushrooms, flybane, LSD, and Special K, but The Bad Lieutenant himself prefers crack, cocaine, gin, guns, and betting on a World Series between the Mets and the Dodgers. I've seen this movie a dozen times and it seems to be a different score every time. There's at least two different versions of the film, unrated and rated R, one with a lengthy and super strange scene where Harvey does some bad things in the company of two girls, and a Skooly D. track song sampled Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" without licensing, which the copyrights on sampling changed during the film's release--so only VHS tapes still have that version. But none of these changes diminish the gonzo power of seeing Jesus appear to Harvey and have him crawling around in the church shouting obscenities and crying because now he has to forgive and absolve two guys who raped a nun and stole "a holy thing." The nun forgives, and she counsels Harvey to do the same. In my virulently anti-Catholic days I didn't understand fully what it was all about, like Harvey's unnamed character I had to try every single damn other avenue, slowly wearing out my welcome at every purgatory pit stop. But sometimes all it takes is a spark and you're ready to roar right up like a burning midnight cornfield of heavenly absolution. When that happens it doesn't matter what else comes. The white light of love has touched you, has activated your pineal holy glandular third eye and now you're free.... free... free... BANG! You're dead, but too free to care.
6. Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker as Brother Sun and Sister Moon
Graham Faulkner is fine and gorgeous as the solar brother, Saint Francis; his bright-eyed face contorts with spiritual ecstasy like Harpo Marx crossed with Sam Rockwell. As the lunar sister, Judi Bowker is a wispy knockout with such long gorgeous blond hair that for me the biggest tragedy of Christendom is when they decide to cut it all off so she can join their muddy little holy order.
That's where my Christianity draws the line. Would you pick the lilies of the field right in fullest flower just to cut the heads off? Still, if I came across this nut Francis in the fields outside Assisi, what would I do? Probably join him; lord knows I've joined up with magnetic hippies far dirtier, and for far less noble reasons. Following your heart takes guts, and the best Christians are the ones who bow their heads to lions daily. The rest of us forget and run, and are ripped to shreds, lifetime after lifetime.
+ David Chapelle, Michel Gondry, everyone - David Chapelle's Block Party (2005)
If you think there's anything more beautiful than an elderly black man walking down a sunny Brooklyn street in his Sunday finery, then you dear sir or madame, are crazy. And seeing that level of beauty is one of the last stops on the heavenly choo-choo. Will you join with me now in dropping your baggage and hopping aboard?
I think it's a truly beautiful thing that Tyler Perry's Madea has become such a success, and of course I also understand the baffled unease of the white critics who watch with jaws agape. I too would be like those confused critics if I had been assigned both these movies at my old critic job, and I will always be grateful to the editors for passing these films down to the second stringers like some unclean leper's foot that cures not just the leper, but the sinner washing it. I grew up in a time and place where on one hand everyone was open and loving and happy in our all-white comfortably middle class suburban Lansdale, PA community. But on the other hand--even the late 60s-early 70--it was a time when adults were openly racist, sexist, homophobic, and seven deadly sinful without ever thinking it was wrong, and after a bunch of cocktails it got worse, and I thought it was hilarious! I loved the permissive freedom, the easy and free human contact and I was high on that sugary fast food of group social bonding, racism and us vs. them-ism -- easy to find, cheap as hell, but leaves you hating yourself in ways it might take decades to even realize, or admit. So while some artsy white writers aren't racist but don't want to see Madea for its lack of artsiness, I wasn't one of them.
Madea's Family Reunion covers a lot of ground, it's got fart jokes and spousal abuse and this and that, but one thing it doesn't do, not for a minute, is back down from the Big Path, the full-on "love and forgiveness to all" angle. There's a stretch during the reunion when Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou show up, and in the back yard is the old slave shack of their ancestors, and there's so much gravitas, wisdom, strength and beauty in this scene where Tyson and Angelou speak on the issues of rising up that I just lost it, and so did everyone there in the all black Union Square audience I saw it with, not in this choking back sobs quietly with kleenexes white people way, but in a powerful spiritual transformation way where we all began to breathe in unison, into one long crying one minute / laughing the next but in always outward motion that seemed to brighten the very auditorium us with some kind of multi-colored aural radiance that gradually became silvery white light. When we walked out of the theater, we walked out together. It was not in the usual way I was used to exiting a film, all hurried and quick to get to the bathroom, before the dawdlers turned the aisled into a stalled-out traffic jam. We exited as a family, our eyes met, warm and open and unafraid...
David Chapelle and Michel Gondry also created that vibe for me and my screening's audience in David Chapelle's Block Party. Chapelle's open-hearted good nature in trying to throw this free block party for his old Bed Stuy neighborhood is truly infectious, and as it unfolds the positive energy just creates its own healing space where a secretly semi-intolerant Brooklyn dwelling liberal like myself feels like he just had about six hours of massage after being in a cramped prison for 30 years. Anyway Chappelle and Gondry must have struck a chord because since then Gondry has become a kind of saint of racial unification, at least to me. I really needed it, and he gave it to me at the right time.
The dharma flows through Harold Ramis's heavenly vehicle thanks to a script co-written with the celestial Danny Rubin. I've seen this film at many different station stops of life, but one thing for sure, I now know, it's all true. Heaven and Hell are spread upon the bread of the earth, the crust dug deep by the knowing hog called Punxsutawney Phil. Even his name sounds Buddhist, as if filling the heart with some purple light of forgiveness and self-acceptance. Let us now consult the divine Punxsutawney Phil, for yes, in transmuting the day into night with peace and a perfectly open heart we actually do get to sleep with the celestial Andie McDowell of pure conscious light and reasoning. But that means no more meanness, Bill. But if you are just horny for the Andie McDowell action, you shall never achieve her, because it means you are caught in desire's sticky web, so all your sweetness to her means you must be sour to all rivals for her attention, and they seem to be everywhere, oh man they are here and there to the point you get jealous even of the flowers she smells, of the kid she smiles at in passing. It's as inevitable as you care to make it. But when even the most wheezing of dirty old men in your way to see her is your brother, and you stoop to help him, throwing all the candy hearts and flowers meant for her under his head for a pillow, only then shall ye finally have her. Watching the subtlety of Bill Murray's face as he slowly goes from angry to existential to resigned to bitter to horny and desperate and finally to this blissful acceptance is one of the great transcendental joys of pop culture comedy cinema.
There's a beautiful moment in this endearingly odd and truly spiritual MGM film when the Jesus stand-in, Cambreau (Ian Hunter) lets himself be swept overboard, knowing Gable's 'saving' is imminent. That weird apocryphal savior is to Gable is what Obama's second victory was to me, the final dusting away of the last few layers of frozen cobwebs and crap stuck up in my heart chakra's blu-ray eye retina. The cracked iconography of MLK and JFK bled together back into life and there he was, better stronger, faster, the bionic MLKFJ-Ultraman. It doesn't even matter now what happens. If you've read to the end of our country and world's story, don't spoil it. Let me radiate in this one perfect moment with the power of a thousand gongs and the humility of a single hobo's tear as his beach ball drowns in a Sandy mudslide...
The look on Gable's face makes me cry every time when I watch this film, and so I've cried, now, twice. I think of it as the opposite of the look on Joe Buck's face at the end of Midnight Cowboy - when Joe realizes Ratzo is dead, and the bus is still going, and for a little while he's just sitting there in his little bus seat, guarding his bag with a look on his baby face like a little five year old kid trying to be tough on the bus to his first day of school, trying not to appear weak in case all the other kids are looking at him which of course he feels that they are. Jon Voight has the most adorable and sad little war face on in that scene, and it breaks your heart... and we all remember that first terrifying bus ride, the time we extinguished the light of love and joy out of our eyes like a lantern during an air raid black-out of bullies, jaded teachers, busy parents, none of whom noticed the loss or cared or commented. We thought that's what adulthood was. And in our matchless ignorance we drowned ourselves in 120 proof kerosine.
Voight's war face is reversed in Strange Cargo's key moment --suddenly doing the math and realizing the guy overboard is Jesus or the next best thing, because he's a man after all and what thou dost to the smallest and humblest of my creatures thou dost to me, etc., Gable's face is first hardened to the stranger Cambreau's plight as he bobs in the stormy waves, snarling to Joan Crawford, "I wouldn't go in after him if he was my own broth---" breaking off, so beautiful there in the rain when he realizes hey, that's his brother, all right - and suddenly he's five years old again, a wide-eyed pleading look of pure innocence washing over his face - like now that I found you I can't lose you, not now not ever, no matter who you are. It's part and parcel of a spiritual awakening to have this sudden newfound respect for every last life and living thing. A single beggar in the gutter is, in a flash of pink light, more precious than a dozen emperor rubies, without question, without pause.
The early films of Hollywood found this a popular theme and it went on with Mae West in the very underrated Klondike Annie. I found it a very good theme to drink to, and later to get sober to--the con artist hiding out amid some religious sect, first thinking she will scam them, only to wind up getting 'trimmed' of their clutched wallets of vice and fear. Mae West starts out the main attraction of a San Francisco Chinatown brothel, singing "I'm an occidental woman / in an oriental mood / for love..." But her lover there won't let her sail with the tide so she kills him and escapes onto a steamer out of town. Or maybe she kills him, that scene / part seems to have been just shorn clear away by censors of forgetful editors. Another passenger on the ship (captained by gruff Victor McLaglen) is Sister Annie, a missionary bound for the gold rush Klondike. The two ladies become friends and though Annie doesn't drink or smoke or screw around, she doesn't preach at Mae, and that wins Mae's respect, even some interest in the good book she's reading.
Well, you can guess a goodly portion -- Annie dies, Mae takes her place at the mission while falling in love with the mountie that's got her Most Wanted poster on his wall, and all the while the hulking ex-lover McLaglen stomps around in jealous pique. West figures out what's wrong with the current mission and get it into shape, a bit like a female version of Sky Masterson packing the mission house in Guys and Dolls. One of the big leading moments is when Mae runs into an old fellow 'working girl' from back in Frisco, who's kind of incredulous Mae's been walking it like she talks it. Mae says out of the corner of her mouth, "I quit smokin' and drinkin' too" like it's a dirty secret. But she's proud of it, and so am I. Kinda.
This was labeled at the time as Mae's attempt to make peace with the Catholic Legion of Decency, but of course they didn't budge from their urge to hang her from the yard arm, good 'Christians' that they are Doesn't matter, in the end West's willingness to extend the olive branch makes her a missionary I'd follow into any position.
(see it here)
The boys are blessed with a sureness that allows for complete confidence, no matter how many trillions of Chicago cop cars are chasing them or Arethas are stopping their Donald Duck Dunn's and guitarists from going on their mission from God. As a kid in the 70s I was enthralled and intimidated by the Blues Brothers on TV. I had seen them first appear on SNL as a homemade musical act, with Dan Akroyd un-handcuffing his harmonica lunchbox. I contemplated the icky thumb-printed magnetism of their first album, which lurked in a box of cassettes at the King's in Lansdale. The film starts out strong, on that unassailable mission from God, climaxing with that spectacular concert, then things got a little crazy on the way back to the kids' Chicago Catholic school. The cop cars begin to pile up to the point of insanity, and as the testosterone engines in my brain began to rev (I was 13), I felt they had cheated me by overdoing it, like teaching a kid to hate smoking by making him smoke a whole pack in front of you. You like to see cop cars crash, well we're going to crash every cop car in Chicago so you will have learned your lesson. And I didn't get the whole mission to God thing at all, not until later, much later, when I could feel it in my bones and it could make my soul tingle with the mighty blues and the healing sounds of that Aretha and that Duck Dunn and that heavenly Cab.
There's still a long list to go on this one, stuff you wouldn't even think of, maybe. Maybe I wouldn't even think of it. But here's this film, on which I will leave you. I resisted seeing it for the longest time because my mom is Swedish and a Christian Scientist and never one to go all alchemical magic with food. So everyone's like oh you have to see this film oh oh and I'm like shut up man I don't like period pieces and I don't like foodie films and I certainly don't like Christian films, and then you mix them all together with wintry desolation in Norway, now I'm really out of here. I'm too cool. These girls aren't even hot, man. There's no guns. Godard said a movie is a girl with a gun, and this gots neither, just old broads and stark painterly light. But I covered it for a database, rented it, watched it, weeped hysterically, got mad at it, couldn't figure it out, wept again, finally began to get it.
Now I got it.
Thank you .... thank you... thank you.... everyone who indulged my humors or cockblocked or cuckolded or encroached uppon me or tried to get me to come out and play when I didn't want to. There wasn't a thing anyone ever did for me, in all the years of my life, that hasn't been absolutely needed to get me here, to this point, to this now. I owe you it all, all of you all of you all of you I love you all.