The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

My First Year at Grad School in Twelve Musical Selections

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A still from Farinelli. This was the year I both became an 18th century scholar and discovered Castrato arias. (Source)

12. “Somebody That I Used to Know” only Vaporwave.

11. “Sumer is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973).

10. “Demons,” by Alex and “Sleep Games,” by Pye Corner Audio.

9. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme.

8. Psalm 129 from King’s College Choir, Cambridge.

7. The soundtrack from Le Roi Danse.

6. “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman.

5. “Pur Ti Miro,” by Monteverdi.

4. The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

3. The Farinelli soundtrack.

2. Michael Nyman’s “The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room,” “Prospero’s Magic,” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.”

1. Various Arias from Handel, especially Rinaldo‘s “Il Vostro Maggio” and “Lascia Ch’io Piangia” as well as most of “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.”

 

The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

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A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

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A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

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Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

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Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

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Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

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Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

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A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

A Relic of the 1965 Liturgy

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Album cover of the Missa Luba. (Source)

That strange Mass produced by the Council in 1965, an interim liturgy somewhere between the Usus Antiquior and the Novus Ordo, was often accompanied by a distinctive style – at once traditional and fresh, what has been called by some “The Other Modern.” Think of the decoration of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C – especially its many side-chapels. Think of the delightful, dignified, but very vernacular liturgical music of Fr. Clarence Rivers (at least his early material). Think of the ornate but often geometric vestments that emerged from that time. Indeed, just think of Paul VI’s space-age papal tiara.

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The hybrid Mass of 1965. Not ideal, but considerably better than what followed. (Source)

Recently I discovered a reminder of this strange time in the Church’s history. I was watching a 1968 movie called If… with friends. It’s a disturbing (if artful) film about an uprising at a traditional British public school, and was clearly made in conversation with the student protests that erupted that fateful Spring, fifty years ago. I was surprised to find that one of the major musical motifs was liturgical. Looking it up, I discovered it was the “Sanctus” of the 1965 Congolese Missa Luba. The song is in many ways a synecdoche of the 1965 rite. It starts off with on French Gregorian foot, quickly introduces drums, and ends with an extremely Congolese bit of improvised singing. And, it must be said, it’s very beautiful.

The poignant song, coming from a country and Church in turmoil, strikes me as emblematic of the crushed hopes of that era. So much was anticipated of Congolese independence, so bitterly contested in the five years since. Already, the forces of reaction were coalescing around an upstart colonel who would soon assume control of the country as its first home-grown dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. And in the Church, those reformers who genuinely tried to bring about a more perfect sense of the divine in the modern world found their position betrayed by a coterie of unorthodox radicals who perverted the sense of the Council’s documents.

Yet we can still hear that bright, fleeting moment of hope in the voices of the Congolese joining their praises to those of the angels.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me, correctly, that I have erred in attributing the Missa Luba to 1965 proper. The Mass setting was actually first recorded in 1958. It was in 1965 that the first US release of the album came out. So I suppose that, insofar as we consider its Western reception, the Missa Luba does remain part of the 1965 liturgical landscape. And “The Other Modern” certainly existed in the 1950’s; the aesthetics of 1965 were the culmination of a few decades’ of development.

I suppose my final point, about the parallels in the Church and the Congo, wouldn’t work as well as I had hoped. But at the very least, the Congo in 1958 was indeed a place of tremendous hope for the future. That aspiration manifest in the music was soon crushed by the turmoil of five years of war following Belgium’s official withdrawal in 1960. And the Church? Well, in 1958, I’m not sure anyone really saw what was coming…

Nostalgia Without Illusions

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The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious (Source)

Recently I read an article about a genre of music that had previously been unknown to me: Hauntology. In a nutshell, Hauntology is a throwback to the eerie, folksy world of British childhood in the 1970’s. The author summarizes the genre’s affective impact as “strange, melancholy disquiet.” Apparently music is being made today (and has been for some time) that conjures all at once that decade’s public broadcasting for children, the acoustic sounds of the English folk tradition, psychedelia, pagan chants, and synthesizers. Most of this material has been released through a few different labels: Ghost Box, Clay Pipe, and Trunk Records. Each specializes in a different variation of the general theme. On the whole, though, they all produce music that’s unsettling and evocative of a very particular place and time in the last century. There is something autumnal, something anachronistic, something broken in it all. In short, it’s music that’s haunted.

Many of the albums have cover art inspired by Eric Ravilious or John Nash or Sir Stanley Spencer or even Rex Whistler, those painters who so marvelously captured the quiet unease of the British landscape and its denizens. And the multimedia satirical phenomenon that is Scarfolk fits right into the broader movement. Hauntology is more than just a style of music. It’s an aesthetic.

In this respect, Hauntology is to the 1970’s what Vaporwave is to the late 1980’s and 90’s, or, for that matter, what David Lynch’s entire corpus is to the 1950’s.

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Malls built in the early years of Bush I are the stuff of Vaporwave dreams. (Source)

Vaporwave derives its critical bite as well as its occasional airy ephemerality from a unifying sense of dread. Much the same could be said of Hauntology. Only instead of the zombie-like ascent of neoliberal late capitalism under the glittering haze of digital culture and advertising, Hauntology is still preoccupied with the anxieties of the analog age. Orwellian dystopia, the loss of the British countryside, and the destruction of innocence all hover under the surface. It’s drawing upon creepy public service announcements rather than Japanese soft drink commercials. Hauntology is to British Folk Horror as Vaporwave is to Cyberpunk.

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A scene from Blue Velvet (1986), one of David Lynch’s most distinctive films. It set the tone for much of what was to follow in its powerful evocation and ultimately ruthless subversion of mid-century norms (Source).

The common denominator is nostalgia, but a nostalgia free of illusions. Each of these aesthetic representations of a remembered decade – Lynch’s 1950’s, Hauntology’s 1970’s, and Vaporwave’s Digital Age – contains a degree of attachment to that particular time. Usually because the main creators involved in producing the aesthetic grew up then, and thus they draw upon the dreamlike haze which alternately gilds and clouds our world in youth. But it’s all shot through with the very real understanding that the past was not as wonderful as we would like to believe. Something nasty lurks just beyond our peripheral vision. We cannot help remember, but in that remembrance, terror awaits.

I’m an American, and only in my early twenties. 1970’s Britain wasn’t a world I ever knew. Nevertheless, I immediately connected with the emotional phenomenon behind Hauntology. Certain relics of that earlier time appeared every now and then in childhood, and even those that weren’t directly from the United Kingdom of the 1970’s often bring to mind that same feeling of remembered unease. Many of Don Bluth’s films animate precisely this strange, sensitive part of my memory. So do Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. So does The October Country, Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story collection (which itself significantly predates the main era of Hauntology). So does anything by Lynd Ward. So do parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So does that horrible movie, The Plague Dogs. There are probably more examples I could summon up if I thought about it long enough. I am no stranger to “strange, melancholy disquiet.”

I’ve always liked that sensation, and I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ nostalgia. As such, I’m super pleased to have discovered Hauntology.

Becket’s “Easier Victory”

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Saint Thomas of Canterbury, pray for us and for England. (Source)

It’s that time a year again. The Feast of St. Thomas Becket, Martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, defender of the Church’s independence from the Crown. Which means we get to watch that fantastic and ever so Catholic film, Becket (1964). For those without access to the full movie, you can watch the very best scene here.

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One of the film’s great charms is its collection of beautiful Romanesque vestments, all used properly. (Source)

Let me also add in a great excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s classic 1935 verse drama about the Archbishop, Murder in the Cathedral. It comes from the most climactic moment of the play, when Thomas is about to be killed. His priests have barred the doors of the cathedral to the four assassins, but Thomas will have none of their worldly prudence. His speech presents a brief theology of martyrdom that must stir the heart of any Catholic.

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Unbar the door! unbar the door!
We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance,
Not to fight with beasts as men. We have fought the beast
And have conquered. We have only to conquer
Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory.
Now is the triumph of the Cross, now
Open the door! I command it. OPEN THE DOOR!

(MITC 73-74)

May we so speak in the many trials of our own lesser martyrdoms.

My Favorite Scary Movies

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What’ll ya have? (Source)

It’s nearly the Eve of All Hallows, and that means it’s time for some spooky stuff. I thought I’d offer up my top 10 favorite horror films for your viewing enjoyment.

I’ll begin with a few honorable mentions, including horror comedies. In no particular order: Sweeney Todd (2007), Halloween (1978), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Exorcist (1973), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Others (2001), and Shaun of the Dead (2004). All of these are pretty good films on their own terms, and you should watch them. But for the following list, I wanted to highlight a few I though were especially worth re-viewing this Halloween.

I generally dislike slashers and body horrors, so you won’t see any of the Saw, Grudge, Hostel, Alien, or Ring series here. My tastes run towards the Gothic, psychological, occult, Lovecraftian, and atmospheric. My list reflects that tendency. I don’t claim it will satisfy everyone. Finally, while I have generally tried to avoid SPOILERS, I think I may have left one or two. So abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

10. Jack Frost (1997)

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When he kills this guy, he says, “I only axed ya for a smoke.” And chuckles. Really. (Source)

Admittedly, this is a very bad film. It holds a whopping 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve never been able to get through the whole thing myself. But what I have seen makes me esteem Jack Frost as one of the corniest and campiest of horror B-movies. And I adore B-movies, so this one’s gonna stand in for all the crap I could have chosen instead.

The plot is pretty straightforward. A psychopathic serial killer is being transported to death row when his car gets in an accident with a massive container truck full of a biological reagent. He is burned by the acid and seemingly melts away. However, his DNA fuses with the snow and takes on a new form as a Killer Mutant Snowman, hell-bent on terrorizing the community that sentenced him. Hilarity ensues. Complete with over-the-top gore, the very cheapest of special effects, completely maladroit music, a ridiculous sex scene, some of the worst acting you will ever watch, and dad-level one-liners (no, but really), this Christmas-themed whopper of a flop will liven up your Halloween.

9. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

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Les Yeux Sans Visage – a classic of French horror, with profound Feminist undertones. (Source)

Now on to something actually creepy. This French horror film by Georges Franju is not overly scary, in the sense that it lacks jump scares or the typical fare of, say, slashers or sex-crazed body horrors. But it’s definitely worth seeing, as at times it actually becomes a poignant exploration of power and acceptance. Also, it inspired an eponymous song by Billy Idol.

A mad scientist and his cohort of minions murder young girls in Paris so that he can steal their faces – literally. His daughter Christiane suffers from a terrible facial disfigurement after a motorcycle accident for which he was responsible, and in his guilt, he promises he will graft a new face onto her. Every attempt is unsuccessful. Christiane wanders the halls in an eerie white mask, and we are treated to a gruesome, close-up view of a face transplant. Ultimately, the story examines how men use female bodies as canvasses to represent and expiate their own guilt, especially for violence they have committed against women. It also examines the complicity of other women – the mad doctor’s closest assistant is a lady whom he successful healed after her own scarring accident.

A sensitive, beautiful, and tragic tale with a few disturbing scenes. Worth your time.

8. Repulsion (1965)

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The famous hallway of hands sequence in Repulsion. (Source)

One of Roman Polanski’s early greats, Repulsion remains a standard of Psychological Thrillers. It features some of Polanski’s classic sequences and shots: the buskers, the hallway of hands, the decomposing rabbit. The film follows the mental breakdown of a young girl (played by a youthful Catherine Deneuve) on a weekend she spends alone in her apartment in Belgium. That may sound simple, but boy is there a lot going on. Sex, murder, insanity – not to mention painfully tight close-ups in an era when that was considered artistic. Repulsion is definitely one of the strangest and most harrowing films on this list.

7. Jaws (1975)

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Duh dum. Duh dum. (Source)

One of the greatest and most popular horror films ever made. Its instantly recognizable theme is one of the few horror scores to rise to the status of auditory icon. I would argue that it’s Steven Spielberg’s finest and scariest foray into the genre, much better than his trope-heavy Poltergeist (1982). The simplicity of Jaws is what makes it so effective as a nail-biter. There’s a murderous shark, and to hunt it, you have to become ever more isolated – and thus ever more vulnerable.

There are plenty of genuinely scary moments in the film, but I think one of the best is also one of the most understated: the tale of the USS Indianapolis. Here, too, the black magic is all in the simplicity. Quint tells a story. That’s it. But it’s one of the most disturbing stories ever told in a film (and what’s worse, it’s true). While all the cast give fantastic performances, Robert Shaw exceeds his peers by that one scene.

6. Psycho (1960)

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“We all go a little mad sometimes…” (Source)

I probably could have chosen several of Hitchcock’s films for this list. Some of his thrillers are remarkably good. Particular favorites include Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Rope (1948). But as far as frights go, nothing in the prolific director’s oeuvre surpasses his horrific masterpiece, Psycho. Long before M. Nigh Shyamalan attempted (and subsequently wrecked) the art of the twist ending, Psycho showed generations of directors how it was done. Ans like Jaws, Psycho gave us an iconic score, forever associated with an iconic scene.

Psycho was among the first real horror films I saw, one Halloween night many years ago. I’ve loved it ever since.

5. Eraserhead (1977)

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The woeful Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s first movie, Eraserhead (Source).

David Lynch is one of my favorite directors (I sometimes joke that Twin Peaks is my “second religion”). His first film, Eraserhead, has an affinity with the New Wave horror of Polanski et al. As in Repulsion, we are constantly made to feel the limits of the space the characters inhabit. But Claustrophobia is only one of the fears that Lynch explores. Eraserhead is a great meditation on the terrors that attend some of the most common experiences of life: work, sex, marriage, fatherhood. Jack Nance’s performance as Henry Spencer is riveting as it is tense, and the eerie Lady in the Radiator sequences foreshadow much of what Lynch would later use in his more famous works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The film also probably wins the award for creepiest baby in cinematic history; even today, Lynch won’t reveal how they made it. If you like surrealism, body horror, or pencils, I recommend this classic for your consideration.

4. The Innocents (1961)

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Deborah Kerr gives a masterful performance in this classic Gothic horror. (Source).

If you like your horror set in creepy old English manor homes, full of candlelight and the creak of ghosts on the stairs, then you’ll certainly love The Innocents. Based on Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film follows a governess, played by Deborah Kerr, who is sent to care for two orphans in the English countryside. As time passes, she starts to believe that the children are under the malign influence of ghosts. Is she insane? Or is she battling the forces of the supernatural?

While viewers still debate the meaning of the deeply ambivalent ending, one thing’s for certain; this film is a masterful example of mid-century Gothic horror. Not to be missed.

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

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Traditional British Values. (Source)

The Wicker Man, strictly speaking, really isn’t all that scary. But it is a very good story all the same, and Christopher Lee puts in a marvelous performance as Lord Summerisle. If you like folk-horror, a subgenre the English do better than anyone, you’ll enjoy this creepy little romp through a murderous, pagan island in Scotland. Arthur Machen would have loved it.

I find it somewhat amusing that Lee, a devout Anglo-Catholic, thought that the film was ultimately a Christian one in suggesting that even nice people can commit horrible acts if they are not within the fold of the Church. Maybe. But what a poor argument for Christianity it is! The protagonist is such an unlikable and censorious prude, and the villagers are such fun-loving heathens, that you end up not caring too much about the Christian policeman’s fate in the final showdown. Alas. I suppose I’m biased, though, as I’ve long thought that Catholics are just baptized pagans anyway. Incidentally, I think the community of Summerisle gives a pretty good picture of what the Benedict Option might look like in practice.

Don’t confuse this classic with the highly memeable 2006 sequel starring the one and only Nicolas Cage. There are creepy masks, but no full-on bear suits in Christopher Lee’s version. And definitely no bees.

2. The Shining (1980)

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“Come play with us, Danny.” (Source)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Considered in purely artistic terms, there are no better films on this list. It shows what kind of art can happen when a genius director works with a genius actor (Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career). More to our point – the frights are just as potent today as they were in 1980. Unlike a number of other works from the same decade, The Shining has retained its creepiness. It terrified and disturbed me the first time I saw it, and while I mainly pay attention to its formal and aesthetic qualities now, I still jump now and then when I watch it. I will never not find that man in the dog/bear suit (you know the one) absolutely terrifying, and I will never not relish the conversations with Lloyd and Grady with a certain perverse glee.

I could probably go on and on about how great this film is. But why bother? Just watch it yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

1. The VVitch

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“What went we out into these woods to find?” (Source)

Horror has gotten much better lately, with genuinely artistic offerings from bold new directors. The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), It Follows (2014), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), It Comes at Night (2017), and Get Out (2017), among others, have all renewed the genre. But my favorite among the new horror is The Witch (2016). Genuinely creepy, trope-laden without being clichéd, atmospheric, Gothic, full of painstakingly reproduced sets and costumes from Puritan New England, and written entirely in 17th century English, The Witch represents an enthusiastic return to the old legends of Early Modern witchcraft. And it is beautifully shot. At times, it looks like the film that Goya would produce if he lived in our time. There is a black goat. It will change the way you look at the animals. In short, it is a cinematic triumph for A24, a studio that has proven itself to be one of the leaders of the new horror.

I love The Witch for all those reasons – but also because it presents a world in which Christianity is taken seriously. That rather startling quality has been in short supply among horror films since Terrence Fisher’s Hammer flicks of the 1960’s and 70’s. We see these characters as real, dignified people afflicted by indisputably real forces of the supernatural. In the world of The Witch, the Devil is real and so are his servants.

The film can also be read as a profound meditation on the doctrine of original sin. The ruin of the whole family follows from the pride of the father as we see it at the movie’s start. They are effectively damned as soon as they leave the village. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that the Church of Satan both endorsed and promoted the film. It is the only really Calvinist movie I’ve ever seen; no other has so deftly and deeply explored the Reformed idea of reprobation.

Halloween is naturally a time to seek out a good scare. If you’re looking to do that with a movie, I can think of no better option than The Witch. But you’ll get more than that. The Witch immerses us in a world we can hardly fathom, a world where supernatural evil lurks just behind the treeline and in the pale light of an attic. Dipping into that world can be salutary. After all, maybe it’s a good idea on the Eve of All Hallows – the night before the feasts of the Saints in Heaven and the Holy Souls in Purgatory – to spend some time first meditating on the damned.

 

A Sophianic Documentary

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The Puffins of Little Skellig, featured in the show. (Source)

Recently, I had the good fortune of watching Ireland’s Wild Coast, a PBS piece. I must recommend it in the highest possible terms. You can watch the trailer here. From PBS’s description:

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.

The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillnessKestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.

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Irish Swans, photo by Colin Stafford-Johnson. (Source)

Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenboroughdistant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.

Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.

At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.

Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.

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Red Deer Stag, by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Featured in the film. (Source).

The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:

For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)

That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.

In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.

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The Kestrel, shot by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It is impossible to understand how beautiful this bird is without seeing it in motion. (Source).

Petition: Keep Durham Cathedral From Becoming a Cineplex

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Durham Cathedral is not a cineplex. (Source)

I strongly encourage all of my readers to sign this petition by Cameron Garden against the proposed screening of Harry Potter in Durham Cathedral. There are numerous obvious problems with the idea. Perhaps the most fundamental is that a Cathedral should be a holy place, set apart from banal efforts and entertainments. Even if the Cathedral Chapter had decided to show a Christian film – say, The Tree of Life or Into Great Silence – it would still be inappropriate.

Coming on the heels of Korangate and the Asparagus Fiasco, one would have hoped that the C of E might have waited awhile before embarrassing itself again in such a crass way.

Twin Mashups of Twin Peaks

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“Gotta light?” (Source)

If you’re a Twin Peaks fan like me, you watched what must be the strangest hour of material ever to air on television last Sunday. There are those who are also calling it one of the greatest episodes of any tv show in history. They may be right. In any case, Season Three, Part Eight has lingered with me (as with so many others). I thought I’d play around and make some mashups using footage from the new series and sound from the old. Don’t watch either if you don’t want spoilers. And remember to mute and expand the first video in each.

Here’s one using the “Twin Peaks Theme.”

And here’s one using “Laura Palmer’s Theme.

Enjoy.