Pope Francis Makes an Unplanned Stop in Spoon River
Suggested Films for Overcoming Fear with New York Encounter 2016
By Simonetta d’Italia Wiener and Barbara Gagliotti
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the publication of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Set in a fictionalized Midwestern graveyard, Spoon River is a series of poetic monologues spoken by the dead. Most lament the lives they’ve lived: the missed opportunities, the broken relationships, and the stifling nature of small-town living, especially for women.
When it was published in 1915, it was frankly shocking, and not only on account of its pre-occupation with sexual relations. Americans were supposed to be “happy,” somehow above the shameful and corrupting forces to which the rest of world was subject. George Gray, the poem New York Encounter draws upon, is one such example of a man who regretfully shied away from the invitations life offered for fear of being disappointed. The theme of this year’s New York Encounter, Longing for the Sea and yet (not) Afraid, suggests that life doesn’t have to be that way.
When Pope Francis took the country by storm earlier this year, who would have thought he’d make a stop in Spoon River? In a surprising reference to “one of your own poets,” Francis hinted at a way out of our seemingly inevitable destiny of dissatisfaction. We need “‘strong and tireless wings,’ combined (emphasis added) with the wisdom of the one ‘who knows the mountains.’” The Pope is speaking to the late Alexander Throckmorton (formerly of Spoon River) in all of us: we regret that the “genius of wisdom and youth” are not found together in our experience. And yet the great Bridge Builder, @Pontifex to his Twitter pals, insists we need to unite the two – suggesting that this, and other seemingly impassible gulfs, can and must be spanned.
Wherein lies the secret of overcoming the crippling fear of failure, the possibility that life may well end in disappointment? Later on that same afternoon, at the Mass for the first saint to be canonized on American soil, Francis gave a more direct answer, “Life grows by being given away, and weakens in isolation and comfort.” One can’t help thinking that Edgar Lee Masters jumped for joy in his grave at the suggestion. John Hallwas, arguably the foremost authority on the Anthology, recently pointed out that Masters found, “many modern people were often very self-focused…which leads to alienation from, separation from other people. There is a lack of spiritual community and this is one of the main messages of Spoon River Anthology.”
The films we present here allow us to further explore the limitations, obstacles and fears that cause us to lose hope and the moments of grace that enable us overcome them. If the key to living a meaningful life is giving of oneself and opening up to others, then the road to self-fulfillment is traversed by accepting life’s invitations, however they present themselves, and the challenge to grow inherent in each. The path of life thus lit up brings the elusive bridge into focus: the “genius that is wisdom and youth” occurs in relationship, in communion with another self, such that “strong and tireless wings” soar together with the one “who knows the mountains.” Keep an eye out for such invitations and improbable pairings in these films, and happy viewing!
The Soloist (2009) Drama
By Joe Wright
(Available on YouTube, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes: Rated PG-13)
The Soloist is based on the true story of a friendship between Nathaniel Ayers, who attended the famed Juilliard School in the 1970's as a double-bassist and Steve Lopez, a successful Los Angeles Times columnist. The two meet by chance in a Los Angeles park where the now-homeless Ayers plays a violin with only two strings. “Had a few setbacks,” he says to Lopez who responds, “Me too.” The film showcases Ayer’s journey from Juilliard, where he played under Yo Yo Ma, to a skid-row life of shopping carts and rodents. His dream of becoming a great musician fades with his diagnosis of schizophrenia. The encounter between the journalist Lopez – a restless, broken man yet always in search of meaning – and Ayers eventually changes the life of both men, but not without each undergoing painful experiences.
Inside Out (2015) Fantasy/Comedy-Drama
By Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
(Available on YouTube, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu: Rated PG)
Pixar, the highly successful animation company, fearlessly gives us a film focusing on the delicate theme of growing up. They do so by bringing to the screen the story of Riley, an 11 year-old-girl from Minnesota whose family moves to the West Coast, or more precisely, the story of her emotional development as personified by the colorful characters of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear. We see the command center inside her brain as she adjusts to life in San Francisco; her emotions try to guide her but soon fall into potentially catastrophic disarray. Joy, who wants to succeed at all costs to keep Riley feeling positive, clashes with Sadness, who threatens to color important memories in the Riley’s life. In the end, however, the two find themselves complementing one another, putting Disgust, Anger and Fear into their proper context. It is a film for children who, however, might not grasp all of the story’s subtleties; its deepest emotional power is likely reserved for grown-ups. It is sure to profit anyone who is open to re-evaluating their own experience of growing up without being afraid of revisiting their emotions and the value of memory.
Senna (2010) Documentary
By Asif Kapadia
(Available on Amazon Video, Netflix DVD: Rated PG-13)
This documentary film, directed by Asif Kapadia, the British filmmaker of Indian origin, recounts the life and death of the great Brazilian racecar driver, Ayrton Senna, using famous scenes captured on camera from Formula One and family archives. We see his childhood and his ascendency to stardom, the incredible talent that propelled him to three world championships, his love for this family and his great faith, the reciprocal fascination with beautiful women and his rivalry with Alain Prost – all shown with great humanity and narrative expression by people who knew and loved Ayrton Senna. His was a reckless life, saturated by the desire to become number one every time he raced, by restlessness and the hunger for something new, and by his relationship with God. Senna would say after his first championship, “I felt his Presence” – a Presence that truly seems to accompany him right up to the tragic accident of May 1, 1994 during the Gran Prix at Imola. His death, however, is not the last word on his life, as the words of St. Paul etched on his tomb reveal, “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.”
Departures (2008) Drama/Music
Okuribito (original title)
By Yôjirô Takita
(Available on Amazon Video: Rated PG-13)
It is said that the cello is the instrument that most closely imitates the human voice. In Yoijro Takita's Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language Film, this is no exception. The film's shocking opening scene offers no real hint at the direction of the story. When Diago, a recently unemployed cellist, has to find a new job, he answers an advertisement which he thinks is for a travel agency. He discovers it is actually a service to prepare the dead for “departure” and the mistake allows Diago to experience the beauty of life in a way unknown to most people.
Through the mastery of many subplots, we glean the meaning of the main narrative – the existential drama of Mr. Sasaki (director of the funeral home), the secret of the office assistant, the moving stories of the elderly woman who runs the public bath and her most faithful costumers, and finally Diago’s own need to reconcile with his father point to the sense of mystery and hope that death presents.
Andrei Rublev (1966) Drama
By Andrei Tarkovsky
(Available on YouTube, Amazon DVD: Not Rated)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a sweeping epic based on the life and times of the revered 15th century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev. We offer here some comments of Fr. Luigi Giussani: “In a sequence of his film Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky has one of his characters say, ‘You know very well: you are failing at something, you are tired and you can take no more. And all at once you meet the gaze of someone in the crowd – a human gaze – and it’s as if you had drawn near to a hidden god. And suddenly everything becomes simpler.’ The Christian event shows itself, reveals itself in the encounter with all the superficiality, shallowness and apparent inconsistency of a face in the crowd; a face like all the others, yet so different from the others that, when you meet it, it is as if everything becomes simple. You see it for an instant and as you walk away you carry the impact of that gaze within you, as if to say, ‘I would like to see that face again!’ This is the best way to describe the reason for our drawing near to this companionship and finding ourselves a part of it. We are here because of an encounter that happened … From the instant the encounter happens, Christianity takes on a different meaning: something Other revealed itself to be important for the heart of life. That instant made us sense that this Other concerned life; at last, it was a persuasive, reasonable, pursuable, perhaps lovable form of what we had been told before, yet was arid, stony, impossible to comprehend, foreign to us.