Saturday, February 27, 2016

Oscars 2016: "But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware"

I don't watch many films, partly because they flood me with so many references, so many cross connections, it's actually uncomfortable.  And while I leave film criticism to my betters, I offer some thoughts on a few films before the 88th Academy Awards.


There are three Best Picture nominated films that are deeply connected for me: Brooklyn; Spotlight; Room. That's the order I saw them in. They are tied together in my psyche by the two forces of nature that is Irish Catholicism.

"For on the night he was betrayed he himself took bread, and giving you thanks he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

Brooklyn is a stylized snapshot of the emotional, inner life of the Irish who left the Emerald Isle and crossed the ocean in near steerage like "bricks for the Grand City Hall in New York. " {If you're of Irish heritage, you'll recognize that line.}

Some find it saccharine, and I can see why. That early elegiac scene with Eilis Lacey on the boat to the new world waving to her mother and sister on the dock feels contrived and cliched, and yet true. Generations of Irish parents watched as their sons and daughters left for a better life.  That took an enormous emotional toll on those people, those families. This film gives us a chance to feel some of that heartache, despair, sacrifice.

Eilis's entry to the US is sponsored by a priest from her village who left for the States long ago. He is like a fairy godmother: he gets her a place to live, and a job, the 2 most crucial needs for an immigrant. It seemed surprising to me that such an opportunity would be given to a young woman in the 1950s, and that the priest who sponsors her is not sinister. Imagine. An Irish priest from the bad old days (as opposed to the recent bad days) who is not abusing the protagonist. And I don't say that facetiously.

The film weaves its visual tale of Eilis overcoming homesickness, falling in love with an Italian American, and coming to terms with the duality of being an Irishwoman in New York. It evokes the era with the precision and beauty of Mad Men. And surprisingly, Eilis is not harmed. For some reason I kept waiting for something terrible to happen to her. I assumed Jessica Pare's shop supervisor was going to be cruel to her, and I was completely surprised by her compassion.

As a film, I think it has the most resonance for, well,  people of Irish Catholic heritage.


The telling of the Boston Globe's exposure of the systemic protection of abusive priests within the Catholic Church is a superb film.

It captures the journalistic process of the sickening discovery of an evil reality with no gratuitous sensationalizing of the monstrous evilness of the criminals, both the offending priests and all of their protectors.

As it happened, it's Globe's new editor, Marty Baron, the ultimate outsider-- "an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who doesn't like baseball" played with searing humorlessness by Liev Scriber--who asks the team why they haven't followed up on the case of John Geoghan, a priest who actually had been accused of molesting young boys.  The small investigative  team who write under the special section of Spotlight is then focused and slowly uncovers the systematic reassignment of priests who their superiors knew had abused children, instead of calling the cops.

And it's Baron who insists that for the investigation to be effective, it all has to tie to the highest authority, to Bernard Cardinal Law. Which the team is able to do. Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo are all standouts as "real" people who have to come to terms with what until then had been the unthinkable.

Many of the reporters at the Globe are the progeny of the historic kinfolk of Brooklyn's  Eilis Lacey from County Wexford.

Only today I saw a tweet of a plaque from somewhere in Boston that reads:

"In 1847 alone, 37,000 Irish refugees landed in Boston, on the edge of death and despair, impoverished and sick."

It would take the clarity of the Boston Globe's reporting, the home-team paper, to help raise the consciousness of these people whose religion and its institutions were part of their identity.

It's been hard for me, for many, to reconcile the magnitude of the evil of the institutional church alongside the power and mystery of the Mass that Christ entrusted to it.

The Globe reporting ran in January 2002, just months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The numbness of those murders slid into the numbness of this other kind of evil.

Following in the years after 2002, when so much of the abuse came to light, and the millions, or is it billions now? of dollars of collective settlements were reported, a friend told me her sister was converting to Catholicism. She had been raised Presbyterian, not practiced, and was in her 40s.  I remember thinking, how can anyone be attracted to this institution now, to this overwhelming corruption. And yet, at each Easter vigil, there are people of all ages, races, sexual orientation, taking the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Oh yes, because, the faith exists outside of the institutional church.

Spotlight affirms that smart, talented people can still investigate parts of the world that others want to keep hidden. And that there are equally talented storytellers who can bring their work into the broad cultural space that is mainstream moviegoing.

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice, and giving you thanks he said the blessing, and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

When I heard Room was from a novel by Emma Donoghue, I wondered if she was related to my old NYU professor Denis Donoghue, and yes,  she is his daughter.

Professor Donoghue, a leading literary scholar of Irish, English, and American literature, is one of those innately literary souls, and I enjoyed studying with him immensely. I also enjoyed his memoirs, Warrenpoint, of growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland. Denis met and married Frances Rutledge, and they had 8 children.

From an interview with Emma about her mother: "I'm her eighth child (the runt of the litter, she used to say fondly) and it's her boundless, playful and unsentimental kind of mother-love that I tried to pour into Room."

Emma was born and lived in Dublin for her first 9 years and was sent to Catholic Convent schools. I have no idea what her faith is now, but the knowledge is in her DNA.

In 2010 she published a novel about an evil and depravity of sickening proportions.  A man who kidnaps a 17 year old girl and imprisons her in a suburban shed to rape her every evening.

After 2 years a baby boy is born. The captor lets the baby live, and time moves on.

When the film begins, Jack has turned 5, and we see the routine of their lives together. Ma, as we first meet her, is doing an extraordinary job of giving Jack as happy a life as possible. He has no context for their dire situation, and so he accepts, and he laughs and plays like any other 5 year old.  We learn that Ma must be teaching Jack literary classics, as he knows the story of Alice in Wonderland very well. The egg-shell caterpillar, the toilet paper roll maze, the daily run around the tiny shed: all speak to the ingenuity, creativity, and staggering love of this mother for her son.

Brie Larson and Jack Tremblay both give luminous performances.

But the evil is so pervasive.

Like the priests who prey on children.


It's hard for anyone to reconcile evil with an all-loving God.  Satan, Original Sin, all the explanations pale in the sight of horrifically hurt people.

And with so much pain in the different worlds of these films, a song drifted up from my memory:

"I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware"

Such a simple, melodic song from the musician we knew as Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou), who after a spiritual journey became Yusuf Islam back in 1978.  My BFF had an older sister, which is how Tea for the Tillerman came into my life, back in the day. I didn't know it was written for Patti D'arbanville, but the "remember there's a lot of bad and beware" struck me, even at 10 years old.

I love this line from Yusuf's Wikipedia entry: "Although his father was Greek Orthodox and his mother a Swedish Baptist, Georgiou was sent to St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School."

* * * * *

So what do I think should win Best Picture?

The Martian.