An important part of my beat here at Word on Fire is interacting with films and music, identifying enriching theological content in various cultural offerings and finding connection points between the Church and a world that needs Jesus. It is a treat when I get to encounter films, music, and theology all in one package, and this combination is precisely what Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine have provided on their new album, A Beginner’s Mind. Stevens’ past records include lots of overtly Christian content, and De Augustine is clearly a disciple of Stevens’ songwriting style. For this album, the two men holed up together in a house in upstate New York and set themselves the task of watching fourteen films and writing fourteen songs based on what they watched. Their movie selections are eclectic, and the result is a gorgeous collaboration that touches the soul deeply. Here’s my reflection on each track, with a bit about each film as well.
“Reach out” is based on Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, a late Cold War masterpiece about an angel, played by Bruno Ganz, who chooses to become mortal. Like almost every film about angels, Wenders’ angelology is flawed—but not entirely so. The depiction of invisible guardians watching over people in the crowded, divided city of Berlin is magnificent. And for the theologically savvy, the film is a strong affirmation of the Incarnation of Christ, and the nature of humans as the pinnacle of creation. Stevens has contemplated the Incarnation in his lyrics many times through the years, and on this track, we hear echoes of T.S. Eliot’s similar emphasis in the line “I have a memory of a time and place where history resigned.” The music is delicate and bright like a Simon and Garfunkel song. It’s a beautiful opener.
“Lady Macbeth in Chains” is inspired by All About Eve, the 1950 classic directed by Joseph L. Mankiewiz. The film stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star shoved out of the limelight by the conniving Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine sing “evil hid in glitz and glamor,” and the song’s title indicates that wicked ambition curses its possessor in the end. The lyrics are a strong indictment of what Bishop Barron calls the “ego-drama” taking precedence over what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the “theo-drama.” The music is an easygoing folk-pop arrangement that calls to mind the Wilco spinoff band Autumn Defense.
“Back to Oz” is my favorite track on the record from a musical standpoint. It is inspired not by the 1939 Hollywood classic, but instead by the dark 1985 fantasy sequel, Return to Oz, written and directed by Walter Murch. Starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale, this film haunted my imagination as a child. No one who has seen it will forget the Wheelers, Mombi’s heads, or the talking chicken that saves Oz from tyranny. To this day, every time I see a green object, I imagine touching it and saying, “Oz!” This song, like the film, is an anti-gaslighting statement that Christians should bear in mind with dignity: We can’t let people question our sanity because we do not accept the broken world as it is. Stevens and De Augustine sing, “Get it right, follow my heart.” There are a lot of layers of instruments on this track, and the chorus is infectious.
“The Pillar of Souls” is a haunting song based on Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, the third of ten films in the Hellraiser supernatural horror franchise, none of which I have seen. From what I’ve read, the movie is about the attempt to resurrect the demonic Cenobite, Pinhead, so that he may usher in hell on earth. The music is appropriately spooky and ethereal, ending with a mysterious refrain that gives voice to Pinhead’s diabolical inversion of Christian sacraments: “Drink the blood of my wine.” Despite the hellish content in the film and in the lyrics to the song, the music is anything but.
“You Give Death a Bad Name” is another intimate folk song, inspired by another horror film, George A. Romero’s 1968 cult hit Night of the Living Dead. Stevens sang about the same film earlier in his career on the song “They Are Night Zombies!” from his brilliant, largely Christian 2005 album, Illinois. Because of Romero’s legacy, we have become inundated with zombie movies and TV shows, and we take it for granted that zombies have no human souls and should, therefore, be mowed down like video game baddies. But Stevens and Augustine ask, “Can you be stopped or can evil be slain?” Zombies are not actually dead, but rather “what was once dead,” since they have returned to life in some post-human form that mocks the departed. There is a significant critique in the film—and in the song—about humans who simply exist like the walking (once) dead, mindlessly attached to their prejudices and vices and eschewing eternal questions. To them, Jesus is a mere “cadaver on the cross,” rather than the Resurrection and the life. Good zombie movies, like this good zombie song, remind us that we must all be reborn. The music is a throwback to the bigger arrangements of Sufjan Steven’s Michigan and Illinois period, with dreamy production elements in parts.
“Beginner’s Mind” is inspired by the 1991 action thriller Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. It’s a movie about beach bums, bank robbers, belonging, and betrayal, and it’s hard to beat. This song, however, is not one of my favorites. It has a pretty melody played on the piano, but the lyrics don’t go very deep, and the track is unfortunately reminiscent of some of the duller moments on De Augustine’s solo records. Maybe Keanu’s famously one-dimensional acting (which I’ve never minded much) just didn’t move the songwriters deeply enough.
“Olympus,” on the other hand, is absolutely gorgeous, featuring the guitar work that Stevens employed to magnificent effect on Carrie and Lowell, but with an arrangement that would have fit perfectly on the B-side of his Michigan album. Based on the 1981 mythological film Clash of the Titans, which features some of the most famous visual effects of the great Ray Harryhausen, “Olympus” speaks from the perspective of Perseus on the island of Seriphos. (The cover of the album, by the way, features a weird, topless portrait of a Medusa-Pegasus hybrid against the backdrop of waves and a rainbow.) Perseus declares in the song, “Tossing and turning, uneasy, it cost me the cross,” perhaps alluding to the fact that Perseus was often considered an ancient pagan-type for Christ. The song’s refrain is “There’s no place like home,” pointing toward Perseus’ eventual happy ending with Andromeda and echoing the loneliness and longing that most of us have experienced at some point.
“Murder and Crime” is taken from George Miller’s 1979 dystopian car film Mad Max, the first of four films in the franchise. The piano and guitar play together wonderfully on this one, with De Augustine offering an intense, breathy lead vocal with backing harmonies. It is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the work of the late Elliot Smith. The lyrics convey Max’s pain in realizing that the world he knows is ending—something he wishes he had seen coming—with a few curious religious lines imbedded in the narrative, including, “The Lord would abide in murder and crime,” and “Oh god, I’m lost in the antiphon.” The film and the song are both laden with theology.
“(This Is) The Thing” features truly profound lyrics against the backdrop of a simple piano tune. The song is based on John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic, The Thing, which is a brilliant examination of the breakdown of human community amid the paranoia of an unknown enemy. Since any of us could be “the thing,” we fear, we cannot trust anyone. “This is the thing about people,” Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine tell us, “You never really know what’s inside. Somewhere in the soul there’s a secret.” The path of Christ, however, is to choose sacrificial love despite the risks.
“It’s Your Own Body and Mind” is based on Spike Lee’s 1986 feature film debut She’s Gotta Have It. Having not seen this film myself, I watched it before writing this review, and I found it extremely interesting—a kind of jazz and hip-hop homage to Woody Allen. Most critics understand the ending as depicting the empowerment of women by way of sexual liberation, but I saw a profound critique of the prison that promiscuity is for most people. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine reflect, “Your body is a sanctuary, and your body is about to be free.” But free for what? The music is less interesting than most of the other tracks on the record, but here and there it evokes the great beachy harmonies of Brian Wilson.
“Lost in the World” reflects on Peter Weir’s terrific 1977 film The Last Wave, which is about a bourgeois Sydney lawyer who develops a mystical connection to a native Australian community while defending an Aborigine man on a murder charge. Weir is one of the great cinematic masters, and I absolutely love this movie for its deep exploration of the inextricable link between things visible and invisible. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine opt for traditional British folk sound with a blend of prog rock and pop harmonies to capture a feeling of old-world magic. The lyrics have an appropriately psychedelic feel, and the phrase “miracles demystify” is one I will be turning over in my head for a while. “Lost in the World” is a dynamite song.
“Fictional California” deals with Bring It On Again, a largely forgotten 2004 sequel to a popular film about cheerleading. I have never seen this one, although I remember liking the original. The song is terrific, musing on the ubiquitous phenomenon of taking in nonsense and then shouting back out. It contains my personal favorite line on the record: “Open your mind till it all falls out,” which is a cheeky variation on the great Chesterton quip: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” The music features a beautiful falsetto by De Augustine, along with more great guitars, percussion, and vocal harmonies.
“Cimmerian Shade” evokes one of the most important songs from Sufjan Stevens’ back catalogue, the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” again from the Illinois record. This one is based on Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and it is told from the perspective of Buffalo Bill, whose motives are, in many ways, even more awful and intriguing than Hannibal Lector’s. The music sounds a little like Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” intensifying the creepiness of the subject. The killer’s refrain is the egomaniacal but bizarrely relatable, “I just want you to love me. I just wanted to know myself.” If you know the film, the line “I’ll keep her safe in the well tailor made” is truly gruesome—but so is all sin in the end.
“Lacrimae” is based on the 1962 Greek short Lacrimae Rerum, which is a series of natural, ecclesiastical, and domestic images accompanied by classical music. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid and meaning “tears of things,” this title should be of note to Catholics, as the phrase appears in Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti. The pontiff tells us that the interconnected crises of our age point to the fact that “the world itself is crying out in rebellion.” Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine put it like a lament by the Psalmist: “Lord, why must this life be so cruel?” The beginning of the song sounds like something from Bruce Cockburn’s early Christian albums, but it then progresses into the cosmic intimacy of the best tracks from Sufjan’s Age of Adz (2010) and Planetarium (2017). A fitting end.
Check out A Beginner’s Mind for an accessible musical introduction to film and theology.