They're uncommon. At least in feature film releases for those of us who don't live in "selected cities" (by which film companies mostly mean New York, L.A., and sometimes Chicago). But we lucked into being a selected city (by we I don't mean my hometown of Tuscola "sans movie theater" Illinois, but rather Champaign-Urbana, which is where you go to do anything if you live in Tuscola). But this year, I've seen two incredibly original screenplays. Not a story based on true events. Not a re-write after a re-write after a re-write of tired stories like Ben-Hur or the Magnificent Seven (I haven't seen those yet--but really, Hollywood, those needed to be remade?). But earlier this year, I was stunned by the originality of Bryan Sipe's script for Demolition, and yesterday, I was blown out of my seat by Taylor Sheridan's screenply for Hell or High Water. I hadn't heard of either writer, though I loved last year's Sicario, Sheridan's biggest film credit to date. What worked in these screenplays that stood out? Economy for Sheridan and outstanding creative idea-making from Sipe. Sheridan created rich and deep characters through short powerful lines of dialogue. So much so that even the annoying dude next to me rattling his SweetTarts wrapper stopped to listen to Chris Pine and Ben Foster portray two troubled Texans looking for a better future. Economy of language, but plenty of punchy lines for veteran Jeff Bridges, a shoe-in for this year's Supporting Actor nominations. Giles Nuttgens camera work is stunning. The film is flawless. Bryan Sipe's Demolition script has heart-stopping emotion buried inside an intriguing story about a recent widower who demolishes his life to see if he can put it back together (the demolition is literal and figurative). And if Demolition's star Jake Gyllenhaal is overlooked again this year, well, I'm not saying what I'll do, but it won't be pretty. Not to be forgotten this year so far is also Yorgos Lanthimus and Efthymis Filippou's quirky fantasy The Lobster. I'm starting to have hope that Hollywood (but really the indie filmmakers we've been seeing carry the ball lately) will at least give me some real stories without relying on tired plots, explosions, car chases, and sad adaptations of books because no one will take a risk on a story written directly for the screen. Hell or High Water is getting oodles of buzz and that is nothing but a good thing for film and for original screenplays and the people who love them.
Thomas Merton's journals have guided my contemplative journey since their publication between 1995-1998. The seven volume set guides me, and all contemplatives, through his early conversion and joy, to mid-life angst and doubt in his vow of obedience, and into his later fecund spiritual awakening before his untimely death in 1968. This political season, with its focus on anger, petty bickering, disdain for the Other, and alpha male partisan gamesmanship, especially in reference to the SCOTUS nomination process, has garnered attention for the unexamined life in ways Merton may never have dreamed of. Our culture's worship of ignorance and its disdain for educated leaders will be our ultimate downfall. If we are to "win" the wars we fight (against ISIS, terrorism, hatred, bigotry), we must be wise and thoughtful, examining our public discourse and pronouncing our repudiation for men and women who advocate torture, hatred, and violence against enemies and Others. I find it difficult to stay in the moment, especially the public moment, when I'd rather retreat to a hermitage and ignore the public square. But that's not what Merton taught. Engagement is a must, even when those with whom we must engage are enmeshed in what can only be called the behavior and attitudes of the anti-Christ.
I do not refer to the anti-Christ in the same way my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters may inherit; rather, look at political candidates' revelry in popularity, poll numbers, wealth, exclusionary rhetoric, and suspicion of the Other. Does it match Jesus of Nazareth's beatitudes: blessed are the meek, the humble, the mourners, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, and the persecuted? If you are preaching success, money, and power, can you be a follower of the One who denied the efficacy of all of those?
From a work in progress, Midwestern Reserve
Michelle was dying when I met her. She was changing baby #4’’s diaper when baby #3 kicked her in the breast. Not in a mean way; she was tickling him while changing the baby’s diapers. It hurt when baby #3 kicked her. Hurt worse than the normal kick in the tit from your preschooler. She went to the doctor because it swelled up. The specialists called her lump a Stage IV lump. Michelle called it Bob.
Bob took Michelle places. She went to Chicago and Indianapolis and St. Louis in an effort to encourage Bob to live less aggressively in her boob. But Bob’s friends moved in; they moved in to her spine and her lungs and hung out in several organs. Bob and his friends are stupid because killing the host generally results in certain death. Death wasn’t on Michelle’s to-do list. No time for death.
Juggling work and kids and cancer happens every day, just off the interstate in Outlet Mall Town. While meth and illegals and Wal-Mart goods pass by on the interstate, cancer and state football championships keep us grounded. Living with cancer, its life-sucking roller coaster ride to hell and back, is not your grandmother’s living, unless your grandmother also had breast cancer, which is highly likely since, Science reminds us, it’s genetic, except when it’s not because it’s environmental, except when it’s not. Despite the contaminated waiting for hospitals and insurance and nurses and doctors and cancer cells to stop multiplying, there amidst the trials and experimental meds and exhausting rounds of chemo, Michelle attended every baseball game and every school concert for all four of her boys, cell phone in hand, the hand-held device delivering Treatment times and test results.
Michelle’s husband couldn’t be home and wasn’t always the one to take Michelle to Treatment. He drives one of the twenty trains a day that pass us by in Outlet Mall Town. He did, however, slow the train down just enough when he knew one of his boys was at a baseball game at the park. He’d slow down and pull the train whistle five times, four for the boys, and one for Michelle. He did not honk for Bob. When they could all be at the park watching their kids grow faster than the weeds by the railroad tracks, they kept their sense of humor. He and Michelle were always sniping at each other in fun--marital schtick. That snarky schtick kept the family together during Treatment. In public, they never got mad at Bob. They reserved their rage for the health insurance industry, an industry that does not like to pay for Treatment for Stage IV women. Michelle was young. Young means cancer’s more aggressive. Young means it eats your hormones. Eating hormones is expensive. Insurance companies don’t like expensive.