Category Archives: Review

Wonder Woman

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I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.

The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.

Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.

And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.

On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within Zach Synder’s bleak DC Universe.

(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)

That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-poster-header-700x300.jpgJosh Larsen posted my response to his middling-to-negative review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in his Why I’m Wrong feature. I wanted to post it here as well, along with follow-up thoughts about how the movie reminded me of his great new book Movies Are Prayers.

My defense of GOTG2

What I won’t defend: the glorified carnage, yet another “blow up the glowing thing in order to save the universe” superhero movie ending, or the strange casting of Sylvester Stallone.

What I will defend: Chris Pratt’s ongoing ability to surprise with his acting; how they maintained a healthy mix of irreverent humor, action, and obligatory MCU service; and how these maladjusted Guardian misfits learn to love each other and themselves in a surprisingly uncheesy way. The subplots of Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis hardly drag the focus away from the Guardians. On the contrary, they enhance each of them by calling attention to the compelling parts (or defects) in the Guardians’ personalities, and propelling them toward the reconciliation and peace (however temporary) they crave. The Yondu and Nebula storylines were especially affecting, both on their own and how they affected Quill and Gamora respectively.

How can the antagonism between Quill and Rocket be “forced” given their very believable insecurities and irrepressible need to be the wittiest, most tough-guy fighter of the group? And did you fall asleep during the scenes between Rocket and Baby Groot? They contained the same delightful rapport from the first film, altered for the new, infantilized version of Groot. You must have missed those and the other “grace notes” that peppered the entire film, including the best Zune joke of all time.

No doubt the plot goes a little haywire once Kurt Russell enters the picture. (What was up with his castle and all those porcelain dioramas? Demigod hobby I guess.) It pretty quickly didn’t smell right, so I spent most of the second act waiting for The Turn. But since I’ve lowered my expectations considerably for Marvel villains, my larger concern was enjoying the laughs and unexpected poignant moments along the way.

You insist it’s a small movie trying on big-boy blockbuster pants, but I saw it as putting on one of those clear, gelled spacesuits that Quill wears at one point: the spectacle fits snugly around the human core. I’ll put up with an explosion or 17 for that.

Further thoughts on reconciliation

I wanted to follow-up about how it acts as a prayer of reconciliation. Starting in Vol. 1, each of the Guardians (sans Groot) had crippling insecurities and self-esteem issues that they masked with sarcasm (Quill), steeliness (Gamora), pugnacity (Rocket), or a vengeful spirit (Drax). Insecurities make for great cinema: they compel characters to act for or against things. And when they are paired with comedy and great cast chemistry, you get movies like this, which are fun to watch because the characters aren’t as noble and upright as the Avengers.

But insecurity also signals a hole wanting to be filled, which is where reconciliation comes in. It became clear in Vol. 1 that Quill ached for the love of a real family. He thought he had it in Vol. 2 when Ego came along, but then realized it was counterfeit and downright deadly, causing him to see his relationship with Yondu in a different and profound way. (How beautiful was that line “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy”?) Yondu was able to redeem himself in the end, sacrificing his life for his son and bringing people together for his funeral. (Yes, it was saccharine; no, I don’t care.)

Gamora wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it nevertheless came for her in a fury. Nebula’s rage, we found out, was yet another cloak to hide deep childhood trauma and pain of not having a sister to love and confide in. When we find this out after their Sister Fight to End All Sister Fights, Gamora is shocked. But later, humbled, she initiates the process of reconciliation, however uneasy, in another small but beautiful moment toward restoration.

Yondu has another great moment with Rocket, telling him who Rocket is and therefore who Yondu is by extension. Deep down, Rocket wants to be seen and accepted for who he is beneath his hardened yet furry exterior. This bit of reconciliation isn’t between Rocket and Yonda, though, but within Rocket, who struggles with the notion that you have to believe you deserve love if you’re ever going to be able to love someone else. You mentioned the chemistry between Rocket and Groot was lacking. It was certainly different, but remember: Groot technically died in the first movie. Rocket lost his best friend and guardian. Thus I assume his character in Vol. 2 is simply grieving.

For Drax, companionship has been a key desire after losing his family. He achieved some peace about it at the end of Vol. 1, but now his budding relationship with Mantis taps into that lost aspect of his life. A man who doesn’t understand emotions paired with someone who only understands them? That’s the basis of a sitcom. Drax & Mantis, coming to Netflix tomorrow.

And Groot just wants to dance, man.

It seems kinda silly to devote this much attention to a movie that would probably just laugh at any suggestion of deep thought. And you’re right that the grace the Guardians extend to each other did not extend to the hordes of henchmen killed without a second’s thought, an unfortunately typical feature of many American action movies. But I’m a sucker for moments like these in any kind of movie, let alone in one you wouldn’t expect.

Movies Are Prayers

Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.

As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.

“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.

But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:

In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.

I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.

Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.

Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearning in In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:

As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.

So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.

Win It All

I watched The Verdict recently. Paul Newman’s lawyer character bluffs his way into a high-stakes case, but repeatedly fails on his way to the climax, when a Deus Ex Machina saves the day.

I thought about that while watching Joe Swanberg’s latest film Win It All. Getting past the minor thrill of seeing my current city of residence featured on screen so lovingly by Swanberg & Co, has any movie featuring gambling ever ended with the gambler losing? Every one I can think of ends with a dramatic “win it all” moment, no matter how improbable.

I guess in games of chance it’s always possible. But in a movie like this, where Johnson’s no-luck gambler Eddie is established to be a hapless addict lacking self-control but nevertheless fully aware of all he could lose if the worst happens, his Deus Ex Machina seems like a copout, even if it does give him the ending we all want for him.

Despite that lingering uneasiness, I liked this movie. Johnson and his supporting cast of Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, and Keegan-Michael Key complete another typical Swanberg joint: raw, loose, endearing, and at times emotionally harrowing. I’d rate it on par with his previous film Digging for Fire and above 2013’s Drinking Buddies.

Now that I think of it, perhaps Eddie’s sudden conclusion is simply grace.

Escanaba in Da Moonlight

For dose dat don’t know much about the Superior State, dere’s a couple of tings that need to be explained. First ting is, in da U.P., we don’t explain tings. Second ting is, we got some of the best huntin’ and fishin’ in da whole world.

So says Albert Soady, patriarch of probably the most Yooper family you’ll see on film thanks to Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I learned about the movie from a book about midwestern accents, and since I’m from Wisconsin and have been deer hunting, I was very intrigued.

Written and directed by Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native, the movie is based on a play also written by Daniels, which focuses on the peculiarities of hunting culture and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daniels plays Reuben, a sadsack hunter haunted by never having shot a buck. He meets up with his father and brother at a rural cabin the night before deer hunting season opens desperate to shed his “Buckless Yooper” curse. This year, however, he comes equipped with potions from his Ojibwa wife meant to attract deer to him. They apparently work, because supernatural wackiness ensues.

The strange rituals, the sing-songy local accent, and the abundant flatulence all felt familiar to me, having for years trekked to a cabin in the Northwoods for “deer camp” (and duck camp and fish camp) for some fresh piney air and a chance at cynegetic glory. The specific delights and idiosyncrasies of this experience are hard to explain to the uninitiated, but this movie does it well. Half the fun (and strangeness) happens when you’re not hunting.

The movie’s origin as a play is evident. There are stretches of tightly paced dialogue, with characters trading time in the spotlight, and a single setting where most of the action occurs. Yet despite the story taking place mostly within the cabin (which feels appropriately ramshackle and lived-in), Daniels stretches outside when needed to take advantage of the authentic Michigan wilderness around them.

Joey Albright shines as Reuben’s brother Remnar, whose Kevin James-style physicality contrasts well with Reuben’s browbeaten neuroticism. Add to this Harve Presnall’s stentorian father figure Albert and oddball supporting characters, and you’ve got a pasty-esque mix of flavors in this bizarre yet lovingly crafted indie movie that’s best watched in long underwear with a case of Leinenkugel’s.

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

The Book Thieves

As I read Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I kept thinking of Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

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All this book burning by the Nazis entailed looting a continent’s worth of libraries and archives, specifically to root out so-called subversive literature (i.e. anything Jewish). They were also abetted by a very willing populace, including (sad face) librarians:

Wolfgang Herrmann, a librarian who had involved himself with right-wing extremist student groups as early as the 1920s, had been working for several years on a list of literature “worthy of being burned.” The first draft only listed 12 names, but this was soon expanded to 131 writers, subdivided into various categories.

Well, that’s one way to weed your collection… But, as Rydell points out, the Nazis weren’t just about burning books:

The image of burning books has been altogether too tempting, too effective, and too symbolic not to be used and applied in the writing of history. But the burning of books became so powerful a metaphor for cultural annihilation that it overshadowed another more unpleasant narrative, namely how the Nazis did a great deal more than simply destroy books—they were also driven by a fanatical obsession to collect them.

There is a tendency to view the Nazis as unhinged destroyers of knowledge. It is also true that many libraries and archives were lost while under the control of the regime, either through systematic destruction or indirectly as a consequence of war. Despite this, a question that needs to be asked in the shadow of Himmler’s library is the following: What is more frightening, a totalitarian regime’s destruction of knowledge or its hankering for it?

It’s less hankering and more hoarding. Whatever the Nazis didn’t destroy they were perfectly willing to keep for themselves as treasures of conquest. But whether they destroyed undesirable knowledge or stole it and kept it for themselves, their mission was perfectly in sync with the human holocaust that was happening at the same time.

We can say it won’t happen again because books are so much more plentiful and we have the internet as a new means of free expression, but that would be too pat, wouldn’t it? We are never quite as safe from the slippery slope as we think we are.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Not sure what drew me initially to Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, but it quickly hooked me. The vibrant cover maybe. I’ve been a casual soul fan for a while and had vague notions about Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Motown, but I didn’t know anything about Stax or its incredibly American zero-to-hero rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s.

I had heard Stax songs, though, even if I didn’t know it: “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MG’s, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect” by Otis Redding (didn’t realize Aretha’s version was a cover), and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett among others. With this basic awareness, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the Motown and Stax sounds, but they existed:

The sign at Motown read, HITSVILLE USA. The marquee at Stax answered, SOULSVILLE USA. “That whole Memphis-soul feeling—outside of the southern nightclubs, nobody had ever heard that laid-back, barely-make-it-to-the-next-measure bluesy soul feel,” says Mar-Key Terry Johnson. “It was different from Motown with the strings and the background voices and trying to pop up black music so white people would buy it. What came out of Stax was really not a very commercial music. It’s amazing the commercial success it had.” Motown songs made you want to sing along. Stax music—you were the singer.

That surprising commercial success early on was due in large part to Stax co-founder Estelle Axton, who had set up a record shop next to the studio and basically turned it into an R&D unit:

Her store wasn’t only for moving product; it was also for developing it. “I could also test the records they made in the back. If I had one that several customers said, ‘Give me one of those too,’ I could tell them in the back, ‘Go ahead and press that one, it’ll sell.’ That’s why we were successful with nearly everything we put out for a few years—we tested them at home before we let them go.”

As Stax songs grew in popularity, so did the company. Competing with big corporations with national reach like Columbia and Atlantic meant connecting independently with distributors and radio stations all over the country and convincing them to play Stax music. That convincing often came in the illegal form of payola, which some people were brought in by Stax to do:

“I was the payola king of New York,” Weiss later bragged. “Payola was the greatest thing in the world. You didn’t have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here’s the money, play the record, fuck you.” One of his Stax associates remembered Weiss as the guy who could buy a million records for a million bucks. The distribution of them might not have been clean, the sales may not all be accounted for, but the money spent, the generator whirred, and the cash register went ka-ching.

Gordon places the story of Stax firmly within the story of Memphis, a regional hotspot for blues and country music but also an ardently segregationist town and hotbed of race-related civil strife. It’s the city that spawned Sun Records and Elvis, but also a years-long labor dispute between Public Works and majority-black sanitation workers that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to his death. Stax became an urban oasis in its early years, forging a family-like atmosphere where black and white musicians could play and record together, even if they couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain when they left.

Ecstatic studio creativity and bitter infighting. Chart-topping hits and bankruptcy. Pool parties and plane crashes. Gordon catalogs it all with verve in this aural history, using interviews with the people involved with Stax over the years, many of which are still alive. I could barely put this down, and ended up with a mile-long list of songs to check out. (An audiobook with clips of mentioned songs would have been the ideal reading experience.)

Stax, I recently learned, is still alive, surviving buyout after buyout to land as a label of Concord Music Group. The self-titled album of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats was a recent release, and it contains a mix of spunk and soul that’s fitting for a Stax release. Here’s to many more from a legendary American institution.

Favorite Films of 2016

According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:

Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.

Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.

Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.

Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up in this movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.

The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.

The Fits. That finale!

Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.

Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.

Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.


Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert

Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women