Author Archives: Tom Cooper

Media of Awakening

Although films and TV programs are often divided into the well-known genres of comedy, drama, horror, action, etc., I have long been interested in renaming some genres with more pro-social spiritual terms such as the “victory” (see blog posted on June 22, 2016) and “awakening.” What makes the “awakening” genre unique is that throughout the plot, at least one character is rising to a higher awareness in consciousness and then acting upon that new vision. He or she, in effect, “awakens” to a higher truth and then life changes.

In one sense routine films and programs showing mini-awakenings are a dime a dozen: Hollywood characters who learn from their mistakes, who figure out how to sustain relationships, who heal life-long wounds with their parents, and who mature with age are commonplace in mainstream media. And there are also many characters who deliberately go on a pilgrimage or quest to heighten their self-realization and find peace of mind. These include trips to India (think Eat, Pray, Love), to Mecca (think Malcolm X), to Thoreau’s famous pond (think Walden), and most recently to Cape Cod (Year by the Sea).

In the latest feature, Karen Allen (yes, the same Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark thirty-seven years ago!) becomes an empty nester mom who needs some down time to find herself after her husband sells their home and her son is married. Her “mecca” is a small home on an island off Cape Cod and her unintended “gurus” are the eccentric mix of local characters who help her awaken to a sense of self-reliance and transcendence.

When she arrives in her new home, Joan (Allen), has no sense of her next steps and describes herself as “a boat adrift at sea with nothing to steady me.” But each natural venue and villager she befriends seems to teach her something; like the fisherman who, when asked if he is lonely all those long days at sea, replies, “no, the real loneliness is not knowing who you are.” Joan is forced to contemplate this homespun wisdom because her own awakening is in fact to her own latent identity. Once she can hear herself think, listen to the rhythms of nature, and surrender to a higher order, she begins to act like a new person.

Once this recovery of her original childlike identity becomes seminal to her experience, everything morphs for Joan–her self-confidence, her ability to help others, and her awkward, distant relationship with her husband. We discover that, although she is not fully awakened at the end of the film, she has awakened to the process of awakening itself. Thus she is posed to make future breakthroughs and to know a full life.

In her own words she learns to “welcome vulnerability” and to “ride the tide.” Ultimately, when her best friend, another Joan named Joan Ericson, is staring at a tombstone, Ericson sums it up for Joan by noting that on tombstones there is a dash between the date of birth and the date of death. “It’s what you do with the dash that matters.”

In one sense, Year by the Sea is the director’s love letter to Cape Cod, emphasizing the beatific seascapes and local color of Eastern Massachusetts. In another sense the script is about a character’s elevation in consciousness through a season of deliberate meditation like that of Thoreau at Walden. But as with Thoreau, Joan realizes that she was not trying to escape so much as seeking to discover. In her words “I was not running away from something but rather running to something.”

So it is with awakening. We are not so much fleeing the nightmares and illusions embedded within sleep as emerging into the light of a fresh day. Awakening means discovering a new order and genuine identity.

We are not so much running away from the false as running toward the true. And it does not take a year by the sea to awaken, it only takes a consistent passion for the reclaiming of one’s primal spirituality.

RBG, Malala, Elda Hartley and the Great Women in Media

Have you heard of Elda Hartley? Working out of her home in Cos Cob, Connecticut, Elda directed, produced, obtained, and promoted literally hundreds of spiritual films until her death at the age of ninety in 2001. She created Hartley Films from which one may screen hundreds of films about virtually every well-known spiritual practice, religion, Eastern philosophy, new age thinker, and visionary you can imagine.

Beginning in Broadway and Hollywood as a starlet, Elda later made a documentary film about Alan Watts, and quickly realized she was hooked on creating films featuring spirituality. Henceforth her films were documentaries featuring the leading visionaries of her day from Margaret Meade to Jean Huston.

If you go the Hartley Foundation’s website, you can all but become lost in the almost unlimited screenings of films of inspiration and worship. Elda’s ongoing voice through her films is just one of the unacknowledged women’s voices which made a major difference in media about our primal spirituality.

If you are interested in women’s films about rather than by spiritual leaders, you can find documentaries and features about everyone from Queen Esther, who is honored at Purim, and was born 2600 years ago, to Marianne Williamson who is very much alive today. And if you consider celebrities like Oprah to be spiritual, and many people do, then you could easily spend a lifetime watching film by and about spiritual female leaders.

Slowly but surely Hollywood is also beginning to acknowledge female genius in all the primary creative roles. For the first time this year a female cinematographer was an Oscar nominee and director Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman to be nominated for an academy award. You can view documentaries like Shooting Women (an unfortunate title) about other leading women creators in Hollywood. Throughout film history creative film-makers such as Leni Reifenstahl and Maya Deren have been acknowledged as artistic auteurs but a large number of women have been locked out of important roles, nominations, and awards.

In the age of Harvey Weinberg, Bill Cosby and so many others who harassed rather than promoted women, it is important to realize just how many women have strongly contributed to the media industries, to independent media and a far larger world of the arts, journalism, and other forms of global media. Indeed there are now many conferences, workshops, courses, and much more about many aspects of women’s leadership within the media.

The advent and advancement of women in every genre is pronounced. Even in predictable genre films such as “action heroes”, the new Wonder Woman holds her own with Batman and other blockbuster prototypes and even within male super-hero films like The Black Panther, the female leads are now highly intelligent warriors rather than eye candy or romantic heartthrobs. And in comedies, a large numbers of comic geniuses (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, etc.) have come forward to create their own vehicles and are steering the box office their way.

To my view, even the seemingly over-the-top recent women’s ensemble films such as Book Club (which employs the same “older women staying young” themes as TV shows like the Golden Girls, serve a purpose. When the combined talents of Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Candace Bergen, and Diane Keaton are showcased in a script which says in effect “you’re still a valuable, romantic, sexy woman when you’re seventy-five”, it can be empowering to senior women who have been told by society that they are no longer attractive nor important.

To my view the most substantial documentary advancing women in 2018 is RBGabout 85-years-young Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It is not only a film about a transformative woman of justice, but it is also about the women’s dignity and rights she has advanced and protected. Moreover, the film is made by two strong women who co-direct–thus modeling for men the type of cooperation rather than competition which is possible in the creation of important art.

Since RBG seldom mentions religion nor uses spiritual language, I’m sure there are those who do not see it as a “spiritual” film at all. I respectfully disagree. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is shown to be a woman of steel with unflagging integrity who had been upholding social justice against great odds for over six decades. To my view she counters the human nature of others at every turn with her own balanced, innate wisdom and spirit. Her primal spirituality looms large whether identified or not.

Such leaders of ethical fortitude are substantial contributors to the spiritual leadership of the planet whether they use secular language or never worship in public. Ginsberg’s constant high standards, inspiration of the next generation of women lawyers, protection of the marginalized and denigrated, and ability to be a strong voice for truth-telling and fairness all place her quite high on the list of “most valuable players” in the public sector. I strongly recommend RBG.

Another current film about a young woman of justice is called He Named Me Malala. The 90 minute feature documentary by Davis Guggenheim tells the backstory and up story of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. A devout Muslim, Malala is far more overtly spiritual than Ginsberg. But like Ginsberg, her primary commitment is serving the larger community and especially women and girls.

At a very young age Malala joined her father in taking a strong stand for the education of girls and women in her native Pakistan, a practice frequently forbidden and punished by the Taliban. Malala was shot pointblank in the face by a would-be Taliban assassin for her stand on universal education and she narrowly survived to tell her story and become a spokesperson for children’s education. While still a teen-ager she received some of the greatest honors and tributes, including honorary degrees and most major Peace prizes, in the world. Like her autobiography entitled I am Malala, the film He Named Me Malala not only tells the backstory of Malala’s childhood and cultural roots, but also tells the “up story” of her values, strong faith in Allah (the Muslim word for God) and dedication to becoming a voice for women, children, education, and a larger Divine spirit.

It is high time that we paid tribute to such women as Malala and Ruth Ginsberg, and to the leadership role of many women in film and in global events. Indeed, Hollywood and world media have increasingly paid tribute to many strong women– from Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth to Norma Rae and Winnie Mandel–over the past century. But there is a growing awareness that so many significant women’s narratives are yet untold. Many great unrecognized women are also great media makers.

Fortunately a new wave of inspiring women–such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Malala –have attracted substantial media attention as they have become substantial voices in the current rising tide of change. Concurrently, women such as Elda Hartley and co-directors of RBG,Betsy West and Julie Cohen, have raised the bar in making films about such women and the spirit behind them.

It is also significant that many spiritual groups and religions which once referred to God or other names for the Creator as “He” now often refer to “She” or honor both “Mother God” and “Father God” or use similar language. The Divine Feminine is essential not only in the content and process of media that matter but also is a huge creative Source of the medium of light that we are.

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 popeContinue Reading

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 onlyContinue Reading