Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: This Is Martin Bonner

This Is Martin Bonner

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I’ve seen a face I won’t soon forget. It’s the face of an unsure redemption, of grace on the upswing. Of counting tenuous steps as tiny miracles. This face is a freshly washed used car whose surface is clean again, but whose frame within still carries the weather and rust. It’s a face leading a journey from point A to point B, its body taking those tenuous steps perhaps not for the first time, but nevertheless in abject terror. It’s a good thing this face is flexible, for its pieces can come together to form a portrait that is more pleasing and assured than the muddled innards it covers. A stoic smile, forward gaze, hopeful laughter—all evidence that the gears are turning still, that the car may be well used and probably unsellable but it is still a car on the move.

The face, you can see, is a powerful thing. I saw this power in the library the other day, on the train two years ago, and in the movie This Is Martin Bonner.

The man in the library came to the desk, to-go coffee cup in hand, with a question. “Where are your books about Alcoholics Anonymous?” I checked the catalog to see what we had in the stacks and we walked to 362, Social Welfare Problems & Services. “I have a meeting in an hour nearby and I just wanted something to read until then,” he said as I scanned the spines for what he wanted. A meeting? Oh. A meeting. He was unashamed to show that he meant AA, that these books weren’t for “a friend” or his mother. He was drinking coffee, going to the library, and then going to a meeting, all to make himself better. And he had that face in front of it all: sober in every way, clear-eyed, pragmatically hopeful, still emerging from the darkness but happy to do so.

I saw the same face on another man, but without the pat assurances of redemption. On a late train home I saw him sitting alone, he and I the only remaining riders in the barreling train car. His workman’s books, rugged jeans, and thick jacket told of hardy work and long days. His near-bald head was greyed along the sides, and his face—the face—was wrinkled by age and strain. But his eyes (isn’t it always the eyes?) told the rest of the story. They saw far beyond the train car he was riding with me through the darkness. They projected a hopeful vision of the near future, when he would leave the train and take a bus (or walk, or drive) to his final destination, a place that seemed especially trepidatious tonight. Whom was he going to see, and why? An estranged daughter he had wounded in too many ways? An ex-wife he wanted to win back? Whoever it was, they had his full attention. He clutched spiral notebooks, unfolding them now and again to sneak a peek, then closing them and trying to send his attention elsewhere. It was as if he had written carefully chosen remarks in those notebooks, a long-time-coming speech that would need to rectify whatever he was carrying that night from his past toward his approaching future. If his face indicated anything, it was his doubt of success. His fidgety hands preempted any attempt his face made to tell anything but the truth. And the truth was, as I saw it, he was terrified.

I saw the face, too, in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013), a serene and sure film about two men with a faith problem. Martin, a recently bankrupt former church business manager, is a volunteer coordinator for a religious non-profit that prepares inmates for life on the outside through a strenuous work program. The film opens with Martin pitching an inmate on joining the program, which emphasizes rebuilding the prisoners’ “commitment to community.” The inmate balks at this prospect: “What’s in it for me?” he asks with an edge.

Martin, it seems, could ask the same thing. Divorced, separated from his adult children, working for an organization whose faith he no longer holds, he gets through each lonely day with the face we have all worn at some point—the one that says I don’t know, but I’m trying. He buys art at auction and on eBay to decorate his barren abode. He attends (at his daughter’s behest) a speed-dating event despite strong reluctance and low expectations. He sits through a promotional video filled with earnest testimonials extolling the virtues of the inmate rehabilitation program, his stoic face belying his spiritual ennui.

Yet through all of this he becomes an unlikely refuge for Travis, a freshly paroled convict whom Martin picks up from prison. They go to a cafe and Travis tastes good coffee for the first time in years. It’s here we see in Travis’ face the dim light of renewal starting to emerge, the kindling dawn that trails a long, dark night. His face, cautious and humble, tells tales learned the hard way and behind bars as only small graces like good coffee can trigger. His past self—convicted of vehicular manslaughter twelve years ago—is gone. He has a new self now, but for what?

Travis dines with his assigned mentor, who in Travis’s words is “very Christian,” well-meaning and friendly but uncomfortably certain of his role as God’s disciple. When Martin and Travis meet again, Travis shares this with Martin and asks him, only half-jokingly, if he’s “very Christian” too.

“I’ve got a degree in theology and worked for the church for many years,” Martin deadpans.

“I should have known,” says Travis, resigned to more proselytizing.

“But that shouldn’t mean anything,” Martin replies. “I had what you call a ‘crisis of faith’ a few years ago. I woke up one Sunday morning and I didn’t want to go to church anymore. I felt I’d sacrificed enough of my life to God, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I woke up selfish and it hasn’t gone away.”

“So you quit the church?”

“No. I got fired for getting divorced.”

“And you still wanted to work for a Christian organization?”

“Frankly, Travis, they were the only people who would hire me. I applied for a manager’s position at Starbucks and couldn’t get an interview.”

I don’t know, but I’m trying.

Every day provides new opportunities for these men to struggle for tiny victories, for just a flicker of light to illuminate their darkened paths. Martin struggles to connect (quite literally) with his adult son, who for some reason won’t return Martin’s many calls. Finally, Martin receives a gift in the mail: a painting from his son, which might as well have been an olive branch. Similarly, Travis strives toward redemption in a meeting with his estranged daughter, who in his decade-long absence has grown into a young woman who doesn’t know her father. The conversation is awkward, stilted, each fumbling to connect with someone they know ought to love but can’t, at least not right now. Travis, desperate for his new life to begin, wants to make up for lost time, but his daughter, though willing to have a relationship, still wants to take it slow.

I don’t know, but I’m trying.

I could be wrong about these men and their faces. I don’t know their lives truly. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, and projected onto their faces stories I wanted to believe but didn’t know for sure were true. I was happy for the man killing time in the library before another chair circle, another Serenity Prayer, and another day in the struggle, but I could be wrong about him. I was hopeful for the man on the train whose destination I did not know but whose sincerity in getting there was evident, but I could be wrong about him too. And I was glad to see the two men in This Is Martin Bonner find each other as they traversed with fear and trembling the tightrope between faith and doubt, but perhaps another viewer would see in them something entirely different.

I don’t know, but I’m trying.

13 In ’13: A Pop Culture Omnilist

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Standard operating procedure for making year-end culture lists says to rank your ten favorite films/albums/books, but I’ve recently soured against this convention. Choosing a pre-determined number of “the best” among many great works, as all award shows do, is great entertainment but entirely arbitrary. So this time around, I decided to institute my own arbitrary yet entertaining convention of naming the best 13 films, albums, and books from 2013 I encountered last year.

This omnilist honors the fact that consuming art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I don’t wait to watch a movie until I finish reading a book, or until I’ve listened all the way through an album. These things happen concurrently, swirling around my head and heart together like cultural stew. With that in mind, I heard, saw, and read a lot in 2013, but these are the ingredients (divided by form and alphabetized) that came together the best in 2013.

Books

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
I followed Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and ISS commander, on Twitter during his mission last year. In addition to the beautiful ISS-view photos of cities he’d frequently post, Hadfield made several short videos documenting how quotidian tasks like cutting fingernails and using the toilet are accomplished in zero gravity. Likewise, his memoir brought his life as a pilot and astronaut down to earth, describing the lessons on leadership, work, and sacrifices he’s learned both on this earth and outside of it. Entertaining, informative, and very insightful, this book shows that Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t the only Space Publicist out there.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
I heard about this book after I started reading Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. At times memoir, biography, history, and cultural commentary, Little Way documents Dreher’s struggle to come to peace with the small Louisiana hometown he fled, and his saintly sister Ruthie, a schoolteacher who happily stayed put. When Ruthie gets terminal cancer, Dreher sees how the town he couldn’t wait to leave rally around his sister and her family, leading him on his own emotionally-fraught journey home. Dreher writes honestly, lovingly, and critically of his sister while pondering the true meaning of home.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This was the first book I read in my nine-novel November marathon, and it ended up being one of my favorites. It also initiated me into the Gaiman oeuvre, something I’m keen on exploring more after reading this novel. The prose’s lean style allowed the fantastical elements of the story to interplay nicely with the more grounded parts, like the boy’s interactions with his father and the new woman in his life. I often forget how life could seem more terrifying as a child, but I forget just as often that we undervalue the strength that kids have to overcome that terror.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford
I found this very much of a feather with N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, another whirlwind theology book I read this year. While I also enjoy the earnest, intellectual theological writings of C.S. Lewis and the like, books like this one breathe much-needed fresh air into the faith-based discourse that can often come off as stuffy and anticultural. This is a book of and for the heart. Spufford isn’t asking if we can believe the reality of God; he’s asking if we can feel it. The Message translation of the Bible set out to rewrite the scriptures in contemporary language to keep its message “current and fresh and understandable,” but I think Unapologetic does this far better.

Film

Honorable mention films here.

12 Years A Slave
It’s hard to avoid the trap of talking about a film like this in award-season terms, judging its quality and worth by its viability as an award contender. This film is and will be an award-winner, but that descriptor in itself doesn’t say much about the tense, focused interpretation of Solomon Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Michael Fassbender’s typically immersive and impressive performance as a strident slaveowner. Two decades before the Civil War, Northup fought against the dehumanizing institution of slavery as an unwilling combatant, a Northern free man in a Southern slave’s shoes. If Abraham Lincoln became the biggest political lever of the Civil War, then Northup was the fulcrum. This film duly honors the pressure and pain Northup endured serving as the metaphorical fulcrum of the struggle against slavery’s destructive regime.

Before Midnight
When I saw this with Jenny in Chicago this summer, we got to the showing a few minutes early and walked into the theater. The movie was already playing, which I found odd since I knew we were a bit early. But we sat down and watched what we soon figured out was the very last scene. Lightbulb: we were in the wrong screening room. We went to the correct room and watched it from the beginning, but I found this snafu altogether fitting: seeing the end of this film (and presumably of the all-time-great series) at the beginning echoed the start of the whole trilogy, which found Jesse trying to convince Celine, despite all the odds and circumstances, to take a chance on him. Kudos to Richard Linklater & Co for making this beautifully wrenching and wrenchingly beautiful series happen.

Gravity
Though another (very fine) 2013 film already has this title, Gravity could have just as easily been named The Spectacular Now. For all its fireworks and heart-pounding brinksmanship and wide-eyed views of Earth and outer space, Gravity never departs from the now, the relentlessly present moment Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts are experiencing. Director Alfonso Cuarón grabs hold of us right away and says, Better hold on… and we do, barely. But the spectacle of the ensuing ninety minutes, for me, wasn’t just a nonstop roller-coaster (which it pretty much was), but a series of beautiful images like the one at top: Bullock’s capsule, accompanied by flaming space debris, catapulting toward Earth like a chariot of fire.

Her
In a year full of thoughtful, challenging films, this one has inspired the most post-viewing contemplation. It’s a kind of Rorschach test for the digital age: when you see this story of a broken, unsocial man who is befriended by, then falls in love with, a highly intelligent and customized operating system, do you think it’s a dream or a nightmare? Does this futuristic fable portend the end of human interaction, or does it show technology’s restorative promise? That the similarities between Her‘s near-future setting and the present day are so many—the constant connection to mobile devices, the self-imposed social isolation—suggests that we don’t have to wait for the future to answer that question.

Like Someone In Love
I don’t watch horror films because I don’t want to be haunted. Little did I know that Abbas Kiarostami’s follow-up to Certified Copy would be as haunting as anything I’ve seen in a while. There’s nothing paranormal in this Tokyo drama, but rather a fraught, mysterious air that permeates the simple story of an elderly widower connecting with a prostitute in unexpected ways. Like This Is Martin Bonner (below), the restraint Kiaronstami shows tightens everything on screen like a vice. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. (This was released in 2012 but not in the U.S. until 2013).

Short Term 12
If Her is for the brain, then Short Term 12 is for the heart. This portrait of the staff and patrons of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teens focuses on Brie Larson’s Grace, but moves around the facility’s sphere, capturing connections between Grace and the kids, and between the kids themselves. When Grace’s own troubled past starts hijacking her attempts to guide the teens through their own crises, her tough shell starts to crack. In addition to having young actors who can actually act, this movie sympathizes with the risk opening up requires.

This Is Martin Bonner
“I’m inclined to believe that director Chad Hartigan is some kind of superman when it comes to restraint.” That was critic Jeffrey Overstreet (who has been a particularly passionate supporter of this film) on Martin Bonner, which follows a pastor and a prisoner on their interweaving paths through life. Overstreet rightly praises the film’s restraint, which other faith-based films often lack. But the faith in This Is Martin Bonner isn’t didactic or caricatured; it’s real, which means it’s messy and imperfect but infused with love. This is currently available on Netflix, so see it while you can.

TV

House of Cards
Like any good work of art, House of Cards rewards repeated viewings. Knowing the full trajectory of the first season allowed me, when rewatching it, to see all of Frank Underwood’s gears turning as his master plan progressed. It’s also a visual feast, taking the noir aesthetic from the David Fincher-directed pilot and propelling us further into the dark underworld of politics and power-wielding. Not sure if I have Valentine’s Day plans yet, but I hope season 2 will be part of them.

Music

Lucius EP by Lucius & Days Are Gone by Haim
(I’m cheating here by listing two separate albums in one slot: my omnilist, my rules.) Wedding receptions are pretty much the only place I full-on dance. But when listening to Lucius and Haim, I can’t help myself. How can you not move and sing along to the Michael Jackson-flavored “Falling”? Or to Lucius’ “Turn It Around”? If women-powered dance rock groups is becoming a trend, consider this guy on the bandwagon.

(image via)

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