May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.
Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.
Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.
Love this photo by Adrian Borda, called “Under An Ocean of Words”, which captures the view from inside a typewriter looking up through smoke. I’ve seen this view plenty during repair and cleaning sessions, but never quite this dramatically. Perhaps I should take up smoking.
Hosted by Tara Bennett and Maureen Ryan—two television writers who covered the show’s original run—the podcast consists of six episodes that examine Lost from different perspectives, including how it revolutionized fan engagement, viral marketing, the phenomenon of showrunners, and television in general.
The final episode features Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were game as always. Their own podcast that they ran while making the show was the first one I ever followed. Before social media was a thing, they made interaction with fans a vital part of the show’s development and marketing.
As an avowed fan of the series finale (fight me), I couldn’t help but relish Damon’s harsh but true words for George R. R. Martin, who was critical of the finale at the time but has now very publicly run into his own issues ending Game of Thrones. Even if his ending matches or exceeds the now crazy high expectations, he will have done it with far more time and creative control than the Lost guys were afforded for theirs.
And yet, despite my appreciation for the series, I haven’t felt compelled to rewatch it since the original airing. Perhaps because of the time commitment, or the foreknowledge of having to wade through some of the weaker episodes.
Thanks to the magic of email, I know that in March 2009 my mom asked if I wanted anything from REI. She had a coupon that was about to expire but didn’t need anything for herself.
REI is one of those stores I love in principle but don’t actually buy from, mostly due to the prices. So I jumped at that opportunity to get something I normally wouldn’t. I considered what I could use and landed on the CamelBak Blowfish Hydration backpack, pictured here over 10 years later in its usual hangout spot by the door:
It’s slim yet expandable, with just enough compartments, and padding in the back to make it breathable. In the picture it’s stuffed with library books, CDs, and my notebooks, with assorted pens, my sunglasses, and earbuds in the front pouch. It’s not super convenient for transporting my laptop, which I have to wedge in between the tapered zipper design, but it’s gotten the job done for a long time.
And in that time, it has accompanied me on every flight, hike, and trip I’ve taken, to every college and grad school class I attended, and darn near every workday I’ve logged. Somewhere along the way I stopped using the water pouch because it made everything in the main compartment a little damp and took up too much space.
It’s not available at REI anymore, so once the end of its useful life arrives I’ll have to find something else like it. I’ve tried satchels and messenger bags, but nothing beats the two-strapping reliability of a quality backpack.
William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.
But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.
This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.
But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.
It doesn’t work. Says McKay:
You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.
He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.
He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.
We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.
They finally wear each other out. McKay:
Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?
This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.
There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.
Booksmart, the directorial debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, was charming as hell.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, two friends and straight-A students on the eve of high school graduation who realize their academic drive kept them from enjoying the more party-heavy pursuits of their peers. They seek to remedy this in one night, pursuing their crushes along the way.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
If you’ve heard of this movie, you’ve probably heard it compared to 2007’s Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (Feldstein’s real-life older brother). The two movies do share a setting, concept, and R-rated comedic sensibility. But there’s more to Booksmart than hijinks.
Wilde’s script, in conjunction with the natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, brings the film to depths of character, understanding, and humor that’s rare in debut features and in movies about teens. When we meet them, Molly and Amy share a goofy and loving rapport. But as their one wild night progresses with mounting setbacks, detours, and stresses, cracks appear in their relationship. This culminates in a fierce and painfully public confrontation, which is stunningly captured by Wilde’s enveloping camerawork and adept use of the soundtrack.
Still, it is a comedy, and an often absurd one as a fish-out-of-water story with razor-sharp leads.Similarities to Superbad aside, I find it more akin to 2017’s Lady Bird in its depiction of the experience of young women striving against strictures—imposed by themselves or others—and arriving at a hard-won honesty. Not always with grace, but definitely with admirable wherewithal and wit.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my own high school experience while watching this film. Though I wasn’t bound for the Ivy League like the girls of Booksmart, I never attended or got invited to the kinds of parties I so often see on screen. (Thus I don’t know if they’re even accurate. Are unsupervised, red Solo cup ragers at nice houses actually a thing?) As an introverted and mostly well-behaved Christian boy, I considered sex, drugs, and drinking taboo, which is how I usually found myself hanging out with my church youth group friends on Friday nights.
It was a lot more fun than it sounds. We goofed off, played games, pranked each other. Though my horizons broadened in college and beyond, I’m grateful for that experience throughout high school. It kept me out of trouble and showed me you don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.
Booksmart shows this too. Though focused on their maniacal pursuit of what they imagine will be a fulfilling rite of passage, the film takes care to show Molly and Amy before the plot ensues loving their cloistered friendship. The subsequent developments they experience together only strengthen their existing bond, which will be helpful as they transition into adulthood.
High school friendships don’t often make that transition, but the film is hopeful about this one. And I’m hopeful whatever comes next for Wilde as a filmmaker and Feldstein and Dever as performers will match what they’ve done with Booksmart.
My favorite new game with 7 Months is to build a small tower with his rubber blocks—to almost as tall as he is when sitting—and watch him knock it down.
He never does it the same way twice. He’ll grab the top one and bring it to his mouth, the whole tower leaning towards him before it crumbles again. The next time he’ll kick it from the bottom. Then he’ll gently caress the middle section before pushing it, or pulling it.
There’s not much point in enjoying the building part when he knocks it down so quickly. I keep rebuilding the tower so fast because I want to watch him consider it anew every time, because the world is too new for him not to.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
A patron walked into the library and approached the desk.
“I was just at a bookstore but I didn’t want to buy too many,” she told me.
She had a list of books she wanted, some of which she got at the bookstore but a few she left to see if she could get through the library.
“Sometimes, when I buy books,” she said, “they just sit there. If I get it from the library, I’m reading up a storm.”
There is absolutely something to this. I have a bookcase full of books at home, yet I can’t remember the last time I picked one off those shelves to read over a library book. Because I know they’ll be there indefinitely, there’s no urgency to read them. A library book, on the other hand, has a deadline attached to it, and often a waitlist.
In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely.
Yet publishers (and their new overlord Amazon) would have people believe libraries are parasites, stealing potential customers away from authors with free* books.
The book world isn’t a zero-sum game. In the case of this patron, everyone won. The bookstore and authors got paid, the library got checkout stats, the woman got what she wanted, and the books got read (victims of tsundoku aside).
I keep thinking of the quote from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist about his illicit relationship with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain:
You know, it could be like this, just like this, always.
In the context of the movie, this was a naive, desperate wish. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for the future of ebooks.
I’ve mentioned the podcast This Movie Changed Me before. In its new season, Naomi Alderman talks about how the transformation of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day inspired her to look at the world differently. Once in a while she’ll experience what she calls a “benediction”:
I will suddenly become aware of the incredible beauty and richness of everything around me. So I would look at a brick wall and suddenly be completely struck by the difference and the there-ness, the this-ness, of every single brick in that wall and how much has gone into just even creating that single wall, and then, look — someone’s put windows in there. And look at the plants — there’s a little bee that just buzzed past me. And when you look at the world that way, when you look at the world with Phil Connors’s eyes, when you go right through the sense of ennui, through the despair, right through to the other side, and all you can see is how amazing it is to just be allowed to be alive right now.