Author Archives: Tom Cooper

Gotti Get Out of this Place

The title of this blog, Gotti Get Out of this Place, is not a typo.  I want to talk about the movies Gotti, Get Out and the 60’s hit song by the Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” all at once.

For the first time in this blog series I am not recommending the featured films –both are too violent and spiritually vacuous.  But I think their popularity and the prominence of similar gangster and horror films/social satires represents something very spiritually important for your consideration.

The feature film Gotti (2018) is not only a biopic about the most influential American mob don, John Gotti, but also about his son’s courageous and obstacle-ridden attempt to get out of his father’s business. One year earlier in the break-out movie hit directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out (2017), a black photographer struggles to escape his white girl friend’s home where black young people have been seduced and given brain transplants to be programmed as faithful servants.

The theme for both of these films could be the hit 60’s pop song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals, a song which contains these lyrics, “we gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.  We gotta get out of this place, girl there’s a better life for me and you.” I am focusing upon “getting out of this place” because it is a deeper theme which the “greener grass”, “teen rebel” and “trapped in a sinister setting” films all have in common.  And it is a theme deep within the human psyche connected to our primal spirituality which I will soon explain.

If you stop to think about it, the theme of “getting out” is also ubiquitous in both classical and pop culture. How many (literally) thousands of plots have been produced by Hollywood,  Broadway,   Nashville, the ‘great literature” lists, and every (script) writing classroom about lead characters who must escape their small town,   restrictive family, doomed relationship,  or haunted setting  to survive, succeed, find true love, or fulfill their destiny?  Whether you choose  Burlesque (Christina Aguilera) in the current decade or Glitter (Mariah Carey) from the previous decade or  the earlier films of Elvis Presley,  the theme of “getting out of this place”,  or “leaving the father’s house”   to find one’s self  or fame,  fortune, or purpose  seem eternal.

The ancient Biblical stories about Moses and Joseph are about a people who must get out  and the more current Exodus classic film by Otto Preminger based upon  Leon Uris’s best-seller  (and many similar narratives) suggest that the theme of  migrating from adversity to “freedom” is an eternal tale.  Indeed, the news media are filled with endless tales of attempted, aborted, and successful immigration.   Movies about escaping prisons, dictatorships, iron curtains, and failed marriages are a dime a dozen and we even speak of the media itself as a major mode of escapism.

What is going on here? 

What are we escaping? Or is this a veiled longing for true “home” and primal spirituality? In films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Lost Horizon, that longing is hardly veiled:  the protagonists of those and similar films will do anything to “get out of this place” to find what the Animals refer to as “a better life for me and you.”

Before going deeper, let’s look at the two recent films. In Gotti, we discover themes that we have seen in other films about the mafia, gangsters, and corrupt leaders. The father’s hands are blood-drenched so at least one of his children wishes to wash his hands of all transgressions and leave the family business. Indeed in Gotti, the mother has also lobbied the father persistently to protect their children from a life of violent crime.

In the Gotti narrative about the real life Gambino crime family, John Gotti, Jr., desperately wants to leave organized crime behind to be a loving husband and father. He has “got to get out of that place.” And yet his father, the system, friends, and what the mobsters call “the life” all hold him in chains as an inducted member of the casa nostra.   John Jr. has become the likely successor to his father’s title as the New York Godfather.

Moreover, when John Jr. expressed his longing to leave organized crime by signing a plea bargain, he is constantly and firmly reminded by his father that to be a man of worth, he must never deny his loyalty to the “life,” to the (larger mafia) family, and especially to his father. It seems impossible to “get out.”

Get Out, the primary character is shackled in a different way.  He is trapped within not only an ominous “home” but also within what might be called the major formula for horror films:  Within the first “reel” (the opening scenes) of such films central characters enter a new venue and slowly detect strange characters and events. As the second “reel” (i.e. the second third) of the film progresses, the suspicious characters or events intensify to become more threatening as characters are either killed, restrained, damaged, or they disappear. Then in the final “reel” of the film, a major villain or horror is fully revealed and must be confronted.

Within Get Out, in which the young black photographer discovers he has been abducted by his girlfriend and her family, he too has been trapped by this standard plotline and must escape something larger than a haunted venue. In this case that something seems to be the sadistic racism which is embedded consistently and satirically throughout the film, the nation, and indeed the world.

So Get Out quickly came to be seen as a satiric comment on the “white liberal racism” which hides behind the “color blind” mask. So although the plot follows the traditional horror movie trajectory, it is about the web in which people of color are caught by white “spiders.”

Gotti is also symbolic. The lead character is not just caged by circumstance but he represents all those who are frozen within the type-casting of culture, gender, and family.   The New Yorker Italian-American expectations for his life have been laid out before his childhood.

Such predictable cultural expectations constitute another Hollywood genre which appears in many national flavors.  For example, within the Pakistani culture it is portrayed most recently in The Big Sick. In the nation of Botswana, it was articulated in the previously recommended United Kingdom.  From Israeli society we have Women in the Balcony and from the Greek tradition, there is My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel.   All of these films, and many others, feature protagonists who are trying to break free of the trappings of cultural tradition and rigid family expectation.

Why is this social entrapment motif so prevalent in popular culture?   If we look beyond the outer clothing of each situation, there is a universal awareness of the feeling that we are all being shackled by the human condition.   Indeed the manacles are as old as the ancient story of Sophocles’ Antigone and as well-known as the family-imprisoned lives of Romeo and Juliet.  Every generation has struggled to break free and “get out of this place.”

Have you ever felt confined by family expectations or by something you mistakenly did or said?  Somehow you could not undo your action and perhaps your mind was locked into overdrive trying to work out a solution?

Have you ever felt that there was no way out of a situation that you or someone else (perhaps a relative, boss, or in-law) created?    Or have you sensed that you were locked within your own skin making the same mistake again and again with no place to hide and no ability to be someone else?

Such feelings are part of the human condition. We all feel imprisoned by our emotions, thoughts, or expectations at one time or another.  Those who cannot find a door to freedom implode or escape to drugs, drinks, violence or suicide.  Whether we are physically restricted or not, we are often mentally or emotionally trapped in a room with no exit.

I am not suggesting that these films are only about this deeper level or psychological confinement.  These stories may also ring true on the surface too.  We audience members might well have had confining parents, conservative communities, or threatening relationships from which we wished to escape.   In such cases, films about “getting out” may precisely mirror our own situations.  No wonder humanity has paid billions of dollars for “escapism” about escape.

Some of my friends who joined the military felt imprisoned when they realized what it felt like to kill other human beings and to have to watch their own colleagues be killed in action.  There seemed to be no way out of horrific war zones and a life of nightmares. Other friends have married someone who initially seemed quite attractive only to discover that their partner had addictions, inner demons, or patterns of abuse which led to irreconcilable differences.

So there are many forms of entrapment that are well captured in film and television.   And yet what about those of us for whom all seems well on the surface?  What if we seem to be free of such situations and yet we lead lives of “quiet desperation?” We too want to “get out.”  We don’t need laws, wars, uniforms, ties to the mob, nor prisons to sequester us.  We do that to ourselves.

In consciousness, so many patterns make us feel “caught.”  And since media are “dreams that money can buy,” what seems like one celluloid prisoner’s struggle in one way or another is really about all of us.

Even horror movies and gangster films are our nightmares writ large.   That is why there is great relief when John Gotti, Jr., or the hero of Get Out finally breaks out of a tangled web. It is, in essence, the same moment as when we too come free of a particular fear or experience which haunts us.

Knowing our indigenous spirituality provides the ultimate answer to such dilemmas.  It is not enough to “escape” because wherever our exodus might lead us, we carry ourselves and our fears along.   We cannot ever truly escape our self.

So the true key to such dilemmas was voiced by the spiritual leader Uranda.  He wrote “when you can no longer find a way out, you will find the way in.”   It is impossible to find true outer freedom without first knowing inner freedom.  So one must first become liberated from fears and obsessions and relax into the inner freedom already available to be truly “out.”

A major source of human “entrapment” also comes when one faces a vexing ethical decision.  A blog in this series has already been devoted to movie characters who face such “no win” situations and who will face criticism and serious risks no matter which choice they make.   John Gotti, Jr., is torn ethically between loyalty to his father and “the family” and his wife and children.

In such situations indigenous spirituality once again offers a fresh alternative.  People caught in dilemmas wonder “Do I honor X or do I honor Y?” They might well be asking “Do I move to the left … or to the right? “ What spiritual identity provides in such situations is a third alternative. Instead of having to choose the decision on the “left” or on the “right,” one may move in another direction: upward. There is always another way to see from above.

Sometimes simply giving thanks or worshipping or sharing an attunement can allow one to see the seemingly difficult choice in a brand new light. And the process of “lifting up” the situation to higher authority may also lead to its transformation.

Ultimately, one understands the deep-seated feeling voiced in the lyrics:   “We gotta get out of this place.” It is a feeling which revisits us all whether it is about a place on earth, a place within a family or relationship, or a place in consciousness.   The media reflects such feelings chronically in films as different and as recent as Gotti and Get Out.   

While they may prove to be engaging entertainment, and while we may breathe a sigh of relief when the characters do get out,   we must be reminded that in the spiritual world there is always a sequel to “getting out” called “getting in.” This is the “inception moment,” when we look deeply within.

“Getting in” and seeing who we truly are is the key to awakening.  “When you no longer find a way out, you can find the way in.”

Within us all is the road less travelled.  And it is the road which leads to what might be called “the new Jerusalem,” the city of sacred revelation.  On that road is the only exit where we can “get out of this place” and the only real entrance to a better life for me and you.

A Pope for all Seasons

Historically the word “pope” has been mired in controversy. Many have pointed to the shadows of those who have ruled the Vatican–strong shadows such as the Inquisition, Nazi collaboration, concealment of pedophilia, corruption, micromanaging the minds and lives of their congregations, and the persistent acquisition of immense wealth. And yet others have seen the pope as the ultimate saint, Jesus’s greatest voice on earth, the final arbiter of morality, a counter-balance to secular authority, and a surrogate “Father” to mankind.

Visual media have also been filled with papal stereotypes such as in the Dan Brown films The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and in the biopics of history about St. Francis, Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Mother Theresa, and others who appealed to or were excommunicated by the pope.

Often through the media lens the pope has been seen as an icon emerging from a distant balcony to bless a crowd or presiding in closed quarters over a throng of elderly cardinals. In many of the top comedies he has also been used as a sight gag or anachronism.

At last a feature length documentary film has emerged which gives an in-depth insider view of an actual human being. Pope Francis: Man of His Word (2018), directed by the renowned German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, is perhaps the most intimate commentary about any major spiritual leader which is internationally publicized.

Because it is shown from both the pope’s and the film-maker’s perspective, there are visual close-ups of Pope Francis set up so that he is talking directly to the camera as if he is across the lunch table from you just three feet away. This intimate one-on-one style recurs again and again throughout the film such that Pope Francis has become your own personal conversation partner by the film’s end. You feel like he has been looking you right in the eye periodically for ninety-six minutes.

When he is not being interviewed, we see the pope travelling worldwide and laying his hands upon the diseased, orphaned, and impoverished as if each is a friend. It is as if there is a powerful attunement current conveyed by his presence and yet he remains humble, open, and genuine. He seeks to answer each question honestly in a simple, unscripted way which touches the audience.

Throughout the film we discover all the ways that Pope Francis remains modest by eating ordinary food, driving an eco-friendly smaller car, wearing modest clothing, and spending much of his time with marginalized and desperate people who look to him for guidance and love. We also see Pope Francis addressing the issues of

the church and of the day–one by one–first poverty, then the environment, then gay identity as a Christian, next pedophilia in the Church, then violence, and other issues such that by the completion of the screening we have a strong sense of his overall vision, positions, and character.

One senses in various parts of the film–especially during the extensive interview (which is actually an inner view) that we are sharing our primal spirituality with another angel on the planet. We can peer into the bright rays of his eyes into a heart of gold. This melting process allows for a greater sensing of one’s own Divinity. Although the film seems to be about Pope Francis, by the end it is ultimately about one’s self.

Indeed when I saw the film, at the conclusion several audience members rose to give a standing ovation while others sat crying, spellbound, or in a state of deep reflection. Although one might not agree with each aspect of Francis’s theology, by the film’s end all of that seems secondary to who he is underneath his catechism, policies, and beliefs.

Pope Francis is a film for all audiences. One sees him worshipping with people of many primary faiths and non-judgmental of those who seem to be non-believers. It has been some time since I have seen a film which I can recommend to entire families to view together and later discuss over a meal.

One senses that Pope Francis is ultimately a pope for all seasons. He is shown visiting all continents, conversing with religious leaders of all faiths, and befriending those of all classes with multiple perspectives. Reform seems to be his middle name, and yet not the type of reform which alienates the traditionalists nor divides his church into two camps.

Francis is clearly trying to put the “Christ” back into Christianity, and that seems appealing to all who know that “man looketh upon the outside, but God looketh upon the heart…” no matter how liberal or conservative their theology. Because he seems so easy to relate to as a person, one senses he could be a next door neighbor or best friend rather than an aloof pontiff. Wenders and Francis even end the film with some humor, a twist which seems out of character with the serious image of the pope to which the Vatican has long aspired.

We are each mini-critics of the media we consume so you may find small problems with the film that I have not. Perhaps for you the film is too long, or too rose-colored since it all but paints a halo on its central character. Moreover, like most people, I too could be critical of the film since I have long doubted the “infallibility” of the pope. Yet, in all honesty, I could find no evidence that either this film, or its central character, are fallible in any way.

By all accounts Pope Francis is a man who walks the talk and inspires others to do likewise. Hence, Wender’s documentary is accurately subtitled A Man of His Word. In an age when the character of world leaders is greatly criticized, it is wonderful to discover a film’s central character who epitomizes trustworthiness and who inspires others to rise, lead, forgive, heal, and especially to love.

Media for Children of all Ages: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

To my view, it has always been as hard to make substantial media programs for children as it has been to make successful programs about children’s media. Morgan Neville’s beloved documentary about the TV program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” manages to do both and more. The 94-minute feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, not only takes us behind the scenes in Fred Rogers TV set and life, but it also shares potent insights about children, their relationships with adults, and our primal spirit.

Not many people knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who left seminary to develop a unique form of ministry just as the new-fangled technology called “television” was appearing in affluent Western countries. Few of us also realize that it may well have been Fred Rogers who saved public television in the United States and who studied child development as part of the team which included Eric Ericson and other academic thought leaders.

The film introduces us to all these little known “backstories” surrounding Fred Rogers, as told through archival footage, as well as interviews with co-workers, family, children’s TV experts, and friends. And the film is not afraid to also venture into more controversial areas such as Rogers’ attitudes toward and relationships with what we now call LGBTQ issues and the protesters who hated Rogers for creating a “generation of entitlement.”

However, I felt this film was about much more than this and the full spectrum of other engaging topics it covered such as race, 9/11, music, children’s TV, and Fred Roger’s hidden traits and trajectory. At the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart–and the heart of this film is about how Rogers opened the hearts of virtually every child and adult he met. In the process of our own hearts are opened and what seems to be a documentary screening experience is transformed into worshipping within a temple.

Toward that end, I felt that the total strangers that I was watching the film with became solidified as if family. We all applauded at the end and many sat in silence. My wife and I could not restrain tears more than once and these were not due to the tear-jerking antics of maudlin and manipulative Hollywood melodramas. These tears were induced by the sustained moments of penetrating truth and profound genuineness whether spoken by children or adults.

Fred Rogers found a way to drop the mask and be an authentic expression of Divine spirit which drew forth the best from all those he interviewed. He loved silence and thus created space for others to come forth rather than jamming their wavelength with verbosity and pomposity. He seemed genuinely interested in each person with whom he spoke and he could maintain such interest long past the breaking point for most of us.

Indeed he made every child (and person) feel special. His stage manager reveals how it would be natural for most media professionals to want to have some of the children who were trouble-makers, especially the “spoiled brats”, to leave the studio. But Fred Rogers included everyone and made even the most difficult children feel special and loved. He not only reached them but he inspired civil behavior and he motivated positive change. Literally, thousands of children thanked him for his inspiration years later when they were teens and adults.

Although I am not into hero worship, I could not help but feel I was watching something like a second-coming of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu or another spiritual leader disguised as an ordinary children’s storyteller–a sheep in worker bee’s clothing. Bible verses such as “suffer the little children to come unto me” and “blessed are the peacemakers” entered my head as I watched the film. I also thought of the Tao’s simple harmony with the flow of life as I watched Rogers exemplify tranquility, non-resistance, fluidity, and humility.

Because he was so gentle and fey, if not fay, Mr. Rogers was sometimes written off as a flake or a fake since no one could possibly be that saintly. And yet, despite his humanness, the off-camera Rogers is revealed to be much the same as his TV image–inclusive, non-judgmental, generous, and above all loving.

Indeed the film is a love letter to children of all ages and an expansion of the spiritual command to “love your neighbor” and in this case, your neighborhood. It is filmed for folk of all ages and stages and far more than a tribute or biopic. Like the other great spiritual classics, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not just a celebration of one life, but the expression of the One Life that we all share–and an invitation to share it deeply with others.

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Media Animals Who Matter

When I was a child, like many of my peers I enjoyed TV programs about animals such as Lassie, Mr. Ed, and Rin Tin Tin. As I grew older I took note of the endless parade of other animal stars from Flipper and Cheetah to the animated celebrities like Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and Nemo. InterspersedContinue Reading