Categories
Film

Top 5 autumn movies

I have a pretty good handle on my Christmas/winter movie canon. But fall? Not so much. That’s what inspired me to consider the movies I return to during autumn, or seek out when I want that Mr. Autumn Man feeling on screen regardless of the season.

To qualify, they have to take place primarily within, embody the spirit of, and have the look and feel of autumn. So my beloved Little Women (both the 1994 and 2019 renditions) don’t quite make the cut given their year-round plots. Nor do other movies that are widely considered fall movies but I either haven’t seen (Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic) or care enough about (When Harry Met Sally).

Here, listed alphabetically, is what I landed on, along with some of their appealingly autumnal attributes.

Coco

Dia de Los Muertos. The spookiness. The cemetery.

Knives Out

The foliage. The sweaters and coats. The gothic architecture.

October Sky

The title of the movie. The overcast. The mournful spirit. The gorgeous music. The light jackets and flannel. (This is really #1.)

Remember the Titans

The nighttime football. The new-school-year vibes.

The Village

The cloaks. The chilly nights. The aphyllus trees. The forest walks.

Categories
Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Books Life

Learning fictions

I’ve been on a fiction reading tear recently. In the last fortnight I’ve finished The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig—all with a mix of print and audiobook. I just started The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on audiobook and am hopeful about it.

In the midst of this streak I texted my buddies that I was resolving to read more fiction.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” I wrote, “to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to learn everything I want to learn via nonfiction books, so I might as well start to nourish other parts of my consciousness too.”

My friend Steve replied: “I feel like I learn a lot about the world from nonfiction, and I learn a lot about myself (and my relationship to others) from fiction.”

Couldn’t be truer. And when I said I typically tilt much farther toward the world, he replied: “While vast, it is sometimes less daunting.” Compared, that is, to ourselves.

Wendell Berry:

Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the difference between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, sympathy, and love—the virtues without which neither we nor the world can live.

Angus Fletcher:

Whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction, that wonder we construct.

Categories
Etc.

Quotes of the moment

An ongoing series

“Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.” – Josh Ritter, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” – Paul Batalden

“From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. We don’t really die.” – The Dig

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” – Justice Robert Jackson

“There’s an eternity behind us and there’s an eternity ahead. This little speck right here at the center, that’s our lives.” – The Good Lord Bird (TV show)

“Help people to trust the compass, not the map.” – Susan David

Categories
Photography

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

Visited my alma mater for a meetup with friends and snagged this view, one I beheld many times as an undergrad:

Walkin’ in the rain:

Waiting for the darkness to descend on a Michigan beach ahead of the Independence Day fireworks (where I was stargazing with WALL-E):

Always a delight seeing my (and my son’s) favorite band, The Okee Dokee Brothers:

Anticipation in grandma’s backyard:

His first official haircut:

Bright spots during an evening concert in the park:

Came upon this leaf hitching a ride to work with me one morning:

Bummin’ around Boystown:

Categories
Film

Marvel-less

As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.

Seriously, how can you top this:

I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.

And I’ve been a big fan of them! I wrote a positive review of Iron Man for my college newspaper at the time and have engaged with the MCU ever since. That’s probably why life as a casual fan post-Endgame has been a bit bewildering.

My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.

I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)

The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.

In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.

Categories
Typewriters

French Dispatch from a Remington Portable 3

Finally took some time to clean up this 1931 Remington Portable 3 with Mr. 2 Years Old, who understandably couldn’t keep his hands off of it. Aside from a faded ribbon, some dried chunks of rubber rattling around inside, and tons of dust bunnies (the compressed air can was a big hit), it’s working fine.

I got it over two years ago from my mother-in-law, who had gotten it for free from someone in her book club. It’s now the oldest typewriter in my collection by almost a decade.

Though it was made in the United States, the keyboard contains French diacritics, most notably the accent (`), cedilla (ç), circumflex (ˆ), and diaeresis (¨). The combination of the latter two on one typebar makes for a rather expressive key top:

The other notable feature (at least for my collection) is that the machine is attached to the base of the carrying case:

The rest of the case pops on and off fairly easily, and contains a little compartment presumably for storing supplies or secret dossiers.

Though I’m looking to slim down my collection, I think I’ll hold onto this one. It’s a fun typer and very solid for a portable. Vive la dactylographiée!

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard lately

Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!

Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.

Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.

In the Heights (movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.

Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.

A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins. Shoutout to the post office.

Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2004

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.

But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.

I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

On to the list…

1. Before Sunset

The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.

2. The Incredibles

This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.

4. The Village

The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.

5. Anchorman

Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”

6. Collateral

Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.

7. Miracle

Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.

8. Ocean’s Twelve

Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.

9. Friday Night Lights

The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.

10. I, Robot

This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.

Honorable mentions:

  • National Treasure
  • Team America: World Police
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Vera Drake
  • 50 First Dates
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • The Notebook
  • Shrek 2
  • Spanglish
  • Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Categories
Film Media Religion

Siskel & Ebert, Mark Driscoll, and the Power of Popularity

Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.

One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.

What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.

For the brand

“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.

Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.

Movies and machismo

Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)

Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.

The beauty of synchronicity

The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.

Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…