589: Two FREE films from PBS take us deep into America and ourselves

ou may be hoping to see some of the cool new holiday movies this week—but you’re probably also watching your budget. So, “FREE” is a great price for thought-provoking entertainment. PBS is debuting two films this week that you’re likely to enjoy, if you’re part of the target audience.
    Here are reviews and recommendation from ReadTheSpirit.

“SCENES FROM A PARISH,” debuting Dec. 29.

    St. Patrick’s Catholic Church is situated in the heart of Lawrence, Mass., an aging industrial town that today is quite simply—”a community that’s a wreck in so many ways,” admits the church’s pastor in the opening scenes of this documentary. (The photo at right is from Lawrence’s heyday as a mill town more than 100 years ago.)
    The pastor, the Rev. Paul O’Brien, seems remarkably confident during our four-year tour of this blue-collar parish. He admits that he’s received his share of hostile messages on his answering machine. He’s well aware that many parishioners resent, fear and even hate their neighbors—especially “new immigrants.” Older English-speaking parishioners are particularly upset by the introduction of Spanish during Mass to accommodate Latino Catholics.
    You’ll hear the word “tough” more than once in this film, because Lawrence always has been a very tough town. A century ago, it was the site of the Bread and Roses strike when workers held out against mill owners’ attempts to cut their pay. The children and grandchildren of those laborers find they’ve inherited all sorts of iron-clad assumptions about life—which clash with the culture of the Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants who have been flocking to Lawrence since the 1960s.
    Why watch a film like this? What’s the spiritual gift here?

    The inspirational power slowly grows on us as we get to know these people. About half an hour into the film, we are immersed in a beautiful, candle-lit Christmas Mass with a women’s chorus singing traditional carols. We hear a Hispanic parishioner saying, “The first time I heard them sing like this, I thought: They’re so awesome! … I just kept listening to that beautiful choir. And I kept thinking: What do I have to do to join that choir?”
    There’s electricity in that moment, because it captures why a newcomer might feel drawn to a congregation for the first time—the mystery that millions of men and women nationwide are contemplating right now. We’re all wondering: What do our thousands of struggling congregations actually mean to men and women these days?
    Then, we think about Father O’Brien’s explanation of why he works in such a town: “What I was struck by in my first couple of weeks in this parish was how clearly God was speaking to many people here.” We think about this for a moment, then the priest drives home his point by adding, “What a holy place this, therefore, is.”
    Lawrence is the poorest city in Massachusetts, Father O’Brien tells us, where “people have to make harrowing choices” every day. Yet it’s in this very place that people feel God moving with an awe-inspiring intensity. There is, indeed, a great deal of hope in this tough old town.
    May it be so in all of our towns, in all of our congregations.
    Here’s a link to PBS’s homepage for “Scenes from a Parish,” where you can find out more and check local TV listings for your area.

“PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE,” debuting Dec. 30.

    Wednesday is Patti Smith’s 63rd birthday.
    It’s likely you may not immediately recall a Patti Smith hit song—but in Steven Sebring’s two-hour exploration of her life, shot over an 11-year period, you’ll discover that she truly is a patron saint of Baby Boomer culture. Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Sebring’s word. When Rolling Stone listed “The Immortals: the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” she ranked No. 47.
    In her early prime, she helped Boomers reach back to William Blake, Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud and the Beat poets. Her life intersected with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Beat poet Allan Ginsburg, Bob Dylan and countless others. She used to help William Burroughs straighten his tie, after he was too wasted to do it himself. She once wrote music with Bruce Springsteen, appeared in a Sam Shephard play, and was lampooned regularly by Gilda Radner on “Saturday Night Live.” She’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s known as the Godmother of Punk. Just this year, her son Jackson married White Stripes drummer Meg White.
    Imagine her as the gaunt farm wife in “American Gothic” who one day leaps from the canvas onto a rock stage, lets down her hair and begins to belt out all of her pent-up anguish. That’s why she ranks as a kind of Boomer patron saint, traveling with us whether we like it or not to remind us of our need for poets and artists.
    Some of the scenes in this documentary are strange and scattered. The entire scope of the film spans far more than 11 years that Sebring ran his camera—adding in footage and still photos from what appears to be a whole host of different sources.
    At one point in the mid-1960s, Patti’s narration seems like a short sequel to Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
    She says, “I wandered through the debris of the ’60s. So much joy yet malcontent. So many voices raised and snuffed. My generation’s heritage seemed in jeopardy. These things came to my mind: the course of the artist, the course of freedom redefined, the recreation of space, the emergence of new voices—and these things I came to express, albeit somewhat awkwardly, through the form of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps I have been nothing but a scrappy pawn, but I am nonetheless grateful for the movies I have come to make—and I salute all of those who helped me make them.”
    Here’s a link to PBS’s homepage for “Patti Smith: Dreams of Life,” where you can find out more and check local TV listings in your area.


    Did you take our poll, this week, on Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions? We published it on Monday, using an experimental Web service. The results already are fascinating. Take a look and add your votes.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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