Thursday, October 4, 2012

Poet, Essayist, Pacifist, Mystic, Prophet: "Merton: A Film Biography" (1984)



Who was Thomas Merton? This biography attempts to answer that question, and partially succeeds.

Thomas Merton was born in 1915 in Europe, the son of two painters. His mother died when he was six, his father died when he was 15, and Thomas was alone (much like the early orphanage of Pope John Paul II). Merton went to school at Cambridge in England, where he drank and partied, but also read philosophy and religious texts, overstudying in every subject. He had been drawn to the churches on a trip to Rome, but did not consider a vocation in religion.

Thomas' grandfather brought Thomas to America (after a scandal involving a pregnant girl), and enrolled him at Columbia University in New York City. Thomas thrived, writing novels, essays, and reviews. He was drawn again to church, becoming baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. He applied to the Franciscan Order, was accepted, but then confessed all the low points of his past and was promptly un-accepted. He then applied to a Trappist monastery near Louisville, Kentucky, was accepted, and went to live there as a monk. The Trappist monks lived as they did in medieval times- they ate no meat, fish, or eggs. They shaved their heads except for a symbolic crown of hair. They slept fully clothed in a dorm-cubicle setting, and there was no heat or amenities. Thomas was only allowed to write four letters to the outside world a year. Thomas loves the monastic life, and gave up writing until he was ordered to write his autobiography about his conversion to Roman Catholicism. That book, "The Seven Storey Mountain," was an instant bestseller, and Thomas began publishing poems and essays as well.

After eight years in the monastery, Thomas was ordained a priest and became known as Father Louis, although he would continue to write under his secular name. Dozens of books followed, and then Thomas had a revelation in downtown Louisville. He realized that entering a monastery did not mean leaving the world outside to its own devices. He decided to devote his life to healing the ills of the world through his words. He disowned his autobiography, coming out strongly against war and tyranny in a time when clergymen did not speak out about such matters as the Vietnam War or the arms race. He was published alongside Beat Generation writers, and his fame grew while he still carried out his tasks in Kentucky.

In 1965, he was allowed to become a hermit, living alone in a small house in the woods, and writing non-stop. He was also studying Buddhism and other Eastern religions, and jumped at the chance to tour the Far East, culminating in a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand. For his first trip outside the Louisville area in twenty-seven years, Thomas traveled to Sri Lanka, met with the Dalai Lama in India, and headed to Bangkok, where he gave a controversial talk. The speech would mark the only time he was captured on motion picture film, and then Thomas would die just a few hours later in an ironic freak accident in his bungalow room, where he was electrocuted by a badly grounded oscillating fan. He was 53 years old.

How did I come across "Thomas Merton: A Film Biography"? Netflix. For once, I did not trump their recommendation software with my varied tastes in film, and they popped it up for me to try. The film, which runs under an hour, was completed in 1984 but looks older than that. The interview subjects range from Joan Baez to Lawrence Ferlinghetti to the Dalai Lama, and they all have wonderful things to say about Thomas.

Writer/director Paul Wilkes does include some passages from Thomas' books, read by a narrator, but for someone who wrote hundreds of thousands of words, not enough time is spent on what Thomas was saying. The film very carefully gives us a timeline of Thomas' life, but only brushes the surface of what made him so controversial. On the positive side, Wilkes goes to the places that Thomas inhabited (like the hermit house), and you half expect him to walk in and begin writing. The most memorable scene takes place in the exact same room where Thomas died, a silly accident taking away such a talented thinker.

I had also hoped Wilkes would talk more about the Roman Catholic church's rejection of Thomas Merton. It is barely touched on and while he is best known as a Catholic writer, I have never seen a mention of him on EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network, where it is safer to dwell on Cardinal Fulton J. Sheen and the saints of centuries ago.

"Merton: A Film Biography" is a good starting point for those wanting to know more. I checked out a biography of Thomas by James Forest, who is interviewed here. I guess if a documentary makes a viewer want to learn more about a subject, then it is a success. (* * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Merton - A Film Biography