The Big Country

big-country

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

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.

Build it up, knock it down

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: Buyers and Borrowers

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.

(* not actually free)

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.

Benediction for the Groundhog

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.

The whole episode is worth a listen.

My son’s media of the moment

Based on the ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

The Best of Raffi. The man is famous for a reason. I’ll bet even the mere mention of “Baby Beluga”, “Down By the Bay”, or “Bananaphone” has you singing along in your head.

Dance for the Sun by Kira Willey. It’s kinda stunning how immediately this album calms my six month old, specifically starting with “The Dancing Mountain”. Been the case since he was born. Now any four-syllable word can send me into a “Caterpillar Caterpillar” cover.

Elizabeth Mitchell. Another children’s music legend you can’t really go wrong with, whether her solo work or collaborations with Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb. “Little Sack of Sugar” from You Are My Flower is fun if you have a chubby baby you can jiggle along with it.

Super Simple Songs. These cartoon videos on YouTube stun the Boy into a motionless daze, so we play them usually only when we need to trim his tiny fingernails. “Apples and Bananas” is the go-to.

Toot by Leslie Patricelli. This board book has an impressive 4.9/5 stars on Amazon from 715 reviews, a rating I fully endorse. Nice to have fart-positive books out there to teach little ones the ubiquitous and hilarity of flatulence. I’m proud to say the Boy loves it and giggles at the mere sight of the cover.

Bunny Roo, I Love You by Melissa Marr. This very cute board book features a mom comparing her baby’s behavior to different baby animals. The first time I read it to my son, the line “Then you yawned and slopped, and I thought you might be a tired piggy” made me laugh out loud. Not only because he’s a chunker who loves to breastfeed, but he squeals and snorts when he’s happy and gets a little floppy and sloppy when he’s tired. Love my little piggy…

Get Thee Back to the Future

Whether it’s my podcast-heavy diet or baby-induced reduction in mental bandwidth for extended concentration, I haven’t been doing much book-readin’ lately. Which is OK, as not reading is fine too.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. While browsing the new releases at a neighboring library I spotted Ian Doescher’s Get Thee Back to the Future, a complete retelling of Back to the Future in Shakespearean verse.

It’s an incredible literary feat. What plays in the movie as this…

DOC: Are those my clocks I hear?
MARTY: Yeah, it’s 8:00.
DOC: They’re late. My experiment worked. They’re all exactly 25 minutes slow!
MARTY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that it’s 8:25?
DOC: Precisely.
MARTY: Damn. I’m late for school!

…Doescher turns into this:

MARTY: Alas, what ringing! Why hath this commenc’d,
The tintinnabulations of the bells?

DOC: Peace! Count the clock.

MARTY: —The clock hath stricken eight.

DOC: A-ha! Then mine experiment hath work’d!
They run as slowly as a tortoise gait,
Behind by minutes counting twenty-five!

MARTY: What shocking words are these thou speak’st to me?
What presage of mine own delay’d arrival?
What prelude to a future punishment?
What fable of a race against the clock?
Is’t true, what thou dost calmly say to me?
The time is verily eight twenty-five?

DOC: Precisely—science is not lost on thee!

MARTY: O, fie upon it! I must play the hare,
And skip most jauntily upon my path,
For I am caught up late for school—again.

DOC: Godspeed, then Marty, on thy merry way!

And so on for the entire film. It’s essentially a funny gimmick that Doescher takes to the extreme. Such an endeavor requires an intimate knowledge of and skill with Shakespearean style, which consists of a lot more than just adding the occasional “hath” and “thou”.

Doescher has written several other Shakespearean retellings like Much Ado About Mean Girls and Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. Here’s hoping for many more.

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

Trying to take evening walks with the almost 6 month old strapped to me while the sun still allows it, so I get to enjoy views like this:

Also get to enjoy views like this from the Nap Cam 😂:

Yet another baby view, this one from the family cottage in Michigan. I left my keys in the room he was supposed to be napping in but wasn’t, so I literally crawled to my bag so he wouldn’t see me and looked up to see this:

Some flowers ‘n’ stuff:

America’s greatness is great

Alan Jacobs:

Yesterday my son, who works in the Chicago Loop, saw a woman on a bicycle get hit by a car. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was knocked to the ground, dazed. He ran up to her to see if she was okay and pulled out his phone to call 911 — but she quickly, urgently said, “No! No! I can’t afford to go to the hospital!” And after taking a moment to gather herself, she got to her feet, picked up her damaged bike, and wobbled off.

And so my son stood there on the corner, surrounded by the glories of Chicago’s architecture, the superb expensive shops on the Magnificent Mile, the wealth that fairly pulsates from every building, and reflected, as one well might, on American Greatness.

I’m starting to see why Austin Kleon is a single-issue voter.

Library ebooks are not free

Those of you not in the library world probably don’t know about the contretemps currently roiling the industry.

Library users don’t see how much ebooks cost for libraries. I order them as part of my job, and I’ve never quite gotten over the sticker shock of some costing as much as $90 each. And that’s just for a license of 2 years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first (almost always the 2 years).

Still, libraries will buy as many as they can because ebooks and eaudiobooks are only growing in popularity. Given the limited collection budget for most libraries, now you understand if you’ve ever placed a hold on a library ebook and found yourself #237 on the waiting list for the whole consortium of libraries sharing access to that ebook. Pity the poor souls who want to read Daniel Silva’s latest:

But guess what: that wait time is about to get a lot longer.

On July 25, John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, announced that Macmillan would make only one ebook version of their new titles available to each library system for the first eight weeks after publication. This is meant to frustrate library users enough to where they will give up and buy the ebook or print version rather than wait so long. And perhaps they will: more power to any book buyer.

But if you’re thinking, “One copy for a whole library system, which can contain dozens of libraries and thousands of users, sounds like a terrible idea,” then you are correct.

Sargent claims libraries are “cannibalizing sales” based on several factors:

“a seamless delivery of ebooks to reading devices and apps”

He should sit at the Info Desk with me and watch me help an elderly technophobic patron get library ebooks onto their Kindle.

“the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers”

This might blow his mind, but people can be both purchasers and borrowers at the same time and often are, in the case of books.

“apps that support lending across libraries regardless of residence”

If he’s talking about sharing among a regional consortium of libraries, then yeah, that’s the point. The one my library is in consists of over 100 public and school libraries in and near the Chicago area that share a collection of ebooks and audiobooks, and do so mostly to share the enormous cost of buying ebooks. But it’s not like I can borrow from NYPL’s collection, and I can’t even access any extra copies another library in the consortium purchases.

Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, one of the largest distributors of ebooks to libraries, responded to Sargent’s specious reasoning and counterproductive pricing with appropriate skepticism:

For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic. It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products. It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.

And perhaps most importantly:

There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers. The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented. Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.

Internet-famous librarian (and excellent newsletter writer) Jessamyn West wrote a column for CNN summing up this imbroglio nicely. In “Libraries are fighting to preserve your right to borrow e-books”, she brings the heat right away:

Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.

Then gets to the crux of the issue:

As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us.

The craziest thing about Sargent’s memo isn’t everything I’ve mentioned already; it’s that Amazon isn’t mentioned once.

But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.

The point here isn’t to self-congratulate libraries. It’s to illustrate that Macmillan’s new scheme alienates the very people and cultural institutions that buy their books and get other people to read and buy them.

Meanwhile, can I interest you in Libby?