Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Rolling With the King
THERE ARE moments in The King—Eugene Jarecki’s ambitious movie about how the rise and decline of Elvis Presley is a metaphor for America—when the film feels like a prophetic lament. Striking widescreen photography frames an original idea: taking the Rolls Royce that Elvis owned on a nationwide road trip, picking up hitchhikers and celebrities alike to talk about what went wrong.
Parts of it are brilliant: Chuck D lamenting how Elvis appropriated black music and ended up being coronated while “Big Mama” Thornton (for whom Leiber and Stoller wrote “Hound Dog”) remained a marginal figure; John Hiatt gently weeping in the back of the Rolls, his heart heavy at how Elvis “was so trapped”; the housekeeper who found Elvis half-dead on the toilet, and the women who live in one of his early homes, briefly centering the stark contrast between a 20th-century king and 21st-century poverty.
It’s brave and imaginative to include footage of Jarecki’s interviewees criticizing him and the film itself. The Wire creator David Simon says it would have been better to use one of Elvis’ Cadillacs—a more apt metaphor for American decline than the car of a British aristocrat. More challenging is Van Jones asking why Jarecki seems to defend a man who took the music of descendants of enslaved people, accrued enormous power for himself, and didn’t speak up when the nation needed public figures to support civil rights.
Goodness and Mercy
WILLEM DAFOE is my favorite onscreen Jesus, and since The Last Temptation of Christ’s release three decades ago, he’s been indelibly associated with that role. His Jesus was a corrective to the over-mysticized versions in epics such as Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told, which portray Jesus as a kind of magician instead of a person.
Dafoe’s Jesus (which is also the Jesus of novelist Nikos Kazantzakis and Paul Schrader, who adapted Kazantzakis’ work for the screen) is a serious attempt at grappling with the human questions his story demands. This Jesus is a breathing, sweating, sleeping, dancing, agonizing, raging Jesus: a political Jesus who prefers a donkey to a revolution; a compassionate Jesus who struggles to figure out his own needs amid the burdens of the world; a thinking Jesus who doesn’t emerge from the womb with a fully formed philosophy but learns by experience, scripture, and prayer.
Fictionalized Jesuses are, of course, like any other Jesus: We see all the Jesuses we’ve ever met through the lens of our own experience. The light of Willem Dafoe’s Jesus (not to mention his astonishing portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in the recent masterpiece At Eternity’s Gate) is more useful to me than the “magician” versions because I’m not sure I can learn much from superheroes.
Faith, Justice, and the Best Films of 2018
BEFORE WE GET to the best movies of 2018, let’s talk about the most memorable moments of this year in cinema. Neil Armstrong casting his daughter’s bracelet into a canyon on the moon in First Man, a story as much about one person’s grief and desire to connect with another as about our species’ ambition and desire to conquer the final frontier.
The dawning realization, in What They Had, of why Robert Forster steps out of the bedroom he has shared with Blythe Danner for 60 years, sparing her more suffering and loving her until the end.
A deceptively simple scene—a conversation in a car going from one neighborhood to another—that’s a revelation of social inequality and how near yet far we live from each other. In minutes, Widows covers centuries of relationships of power.
An unexpected funeral in The Gospel of Eureka that breaks the audience’s heart and calls forth our loves.
And the titular character Christopher Robin, who holds Pooh Bear’s hand as they walk through a field, as though Terrence Malick is directing the film.
Moving Beyond Mainstream
WHEN A FILM seems ahead of its time, it’s because its artists are like time travelers, bringing information from the future to illuminate our present. Ideas that lack mainstream consensus (for instance, restorative justice, gift economies, and the flourishing of previously silenced voices in central leadership roles) can manifest in filmmakers’ storytelling as though they are already reality. We leave the theater wishing the world was more like what we were shown. In the future, we may watch the same film and remember how strange it was when the world was different.
Two recent movies that are this kind of prophetic couldn’t be more different from each other in tone but have the same intent: to say something truthful about women who suffer.
There's a Cost to Wandering
IN THE FILM BLAZE, directed by actor Ethan Hawke, happiness is rare and meaning always seems slightly out of reach, just around the corner. An unconventional, compelling biopic of Blaze Foley, a country musician who died too young, and violently, Blaze is a challenging alternative to familiar rags-to-riches tales. It’s rags-to-slightly-more-fashionable-rags, where the loneliness of the road is never salved by the acclaim of a crowd, the price of art being the very life of the artist.
As a movie about the pain of making music, it’s up there with Tender Mercies, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Dreamgirls. As a biopic it gets closer to the inner life of its subject than most—Ben Dickey’s hypnotic lead performance embodies the drive to write, to sing, to perform, even if no one’s watching. “He knew the value of zero,” says iconic songwriter Townes van Zandt in the film. Van Zandt is played by Charlie Sexton, one of van Zandt’s cultural heirs and a frequent member of Bob Dylan’s band. The value of zero here is the notion that what we’re most called to in life is authenticity, whatever the reward.
Sacrificed by Society
A TRAUMATIZED Iraq War veteran and Oscar Wilde don’t immediately invite comparison, but in two current films they could be scapegoated brothers. The Happy Prince, a labor of love for its writer-director-star Rupert Everett, and Leave No Trace, director and co-writer Debra Granik’s first fiction feature since Winter’s Bone, are both about men in a wilderness, not because they have done anything wrong but because the dominant culture doesn’t want to see them. And I mean truly see them—especially the way they may remind us of discomfort with ourselves.
In Leave No Trace, Ben Foster’s Will has given mind and body for his country and wants to live where he feels safest—in the woods. He handles himself and keeps his daughter (the brilliant Thomasin McKenzie) physically safe, emotionally healthy, and growing in knowledge of the world, but because he doesn’t care for the “system” that harmed him, he must hide or jump through hoops to prove he’s as good as anyone else.
Everett’s Oscar Wilde, in The Happy Prince, is trying to make a life after being imprisoned for love. The first prison was the love itself, love made torment by bigotry; the second a literal jail. He’s broke and broken. He doesn’t always treat others well, but aches to grant the world what he can: amusement at ourselves mingled with compassion for those living “in the gutter,” whether or not they can see the stars. These beautiful films offer hope without cliché, recognizing that our experience of tragedy always coexists with love.
A Dialogue Within
THERE’S A bluish light on the beach in The Piano, Jane Campion’s 1993 film about a woman mute by trauma-induced choice, sold from Scotland into an unwanted marriage in New Zealand, who deepens the roots of her soul and expands her reach into the air and the people around her. The same light is in the misty forest where her confused patron and eventual lover lives; but in her husband’s home, it is dark.
I remembered The Piano as an unusual Victorian romance, but watching it recently, in a restored version that accentuates the exquisite strangeness of its images and ideas, opened a forgotten room in my mind. The Piano functions as a love story that could happen “here”—a character liberates herself from oppression, claims her space in the world, and learns to love herself. But it also deals with mythic reality. Love, hate, power, healing, purpose, Being itself. Things I had not noticed the first time.
It’s often this way when we watch films from the past—we remember who we were, which of course is only ever who we thought ourselves to be; we compare with who we think ourselves to be now. A dialogue ensues between the younger and older selves. A movie that we then experienced as a masterpiece now seems clichéd, or one we did not “get” the first time around now manifests as the film we’ve been waiting for all our lives. We weren’t ready before. Sometimes what we need most is to be reminded that the wonder we used to experience might be even more true than the skepticism that now burdens us.
A Buddy Movie Goes Deep
LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP is paradoxical. The person who knows you best can also cause the most pain. Another layer of complexity emerges when one party wants to change their life while the other remains fixed on how things used to be. Spend an evening with high school buddies who haven’t seen each other for 20 years, and you’ll see that unresolved parts of our character tend to appear when old friendships spark off each other.
The utterly thrilling Blindspotting, a likely candidate for both the best and most important film of the year, dramatizes friendship as central to being human, with the unresolved dimensions of wider social relationships the main challenge we face to be happy in this life and to have a life at all. It’s a brilliant examination of one of the smallest facts of life—boy meets boy—and one of the largest: Since your people persecuted my people, how can we ever become the same people?
The plot is simple: A guy has three days before his probation ends, so he must avoid even the hint of trouble. It doesn’t work out, of course.
The Power of Kindness
THE NEW DOCUMENTARY about the life of beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is not merely a nostalgia trip. It stirs more than fond memories: a collective hope that we might discover our kinder selves. Fred Rogers made kindness look easy.
Some folks are skeptical—they remember Mister Rogers as nice, but not brilliant, sweet, but not powerful. Directed by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals Fred Rogers as an activist for the common good—a singular figure who cared enough about people to give them what they needed, even if they didn’t know to want it. Footage from 1969 of Rogers testifying to a U.S. Senate subcommittee poised to reduce public television funding—melting the heart of a previously resistant senator—isn’t just a heartstring-pulling moment of grace but shows how speaking truth to the powers can sometimes convert them.
Memories That Heal
CONJURING THE VIEW on a mountain hike, the beloved Americana musician David Wilcox sings “Some things you can’t unsee.” The first time I heard the song, I was struck by the surprise: It’s not just the painful, traumatic interruptions that stay with us. The exquisite, tender, spectacular ones can become permanently intertwined with our more practical thoughts, a backdrop for memory, musing about the future, or just living in the ordinary moments of day-to-day living. The magnificent bonus is that traumatic memories can be healed by reframing them with images and thoughts that empower us beyond victimhood.
Some movies, too, sear themselves into the mind. The memory of a scene and the feelings it aroused may become interwoven. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the movie we saw and whatever was going on in our lives at the time. Sometimes the scene is distressing, but other times it is like an old friend or mentor we can visit for comfort, advice, or a reminder of something useful we had forgotten.
I experienced this recently with the new restoration of Women in Love, the 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel about four people trying and failing to tell each other how they feel and what they need.
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