Media of the moment

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

Songs for Singin’ by the Okee Dokee Brothers. My eager anticipation was rewarded with this double-album’s worth of characteristically clever, catchy, and joyful tunes. I may have teared up during “Jubilation”.

The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, there are few regrettably ’80s moments and music cues, but it’s nevertheless one of the most effective and creative reimaginings of the Jesus story I’ve encountered. (See also: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.)

Da 5 Bloods. It’s simultaneously: a long movie that flew by, an epic that felt intimate, a didactic history lesson that felt urgent, a legendary filmmaker’s 24th feature that felt fresh, and a movie meant for theaters that still works on Netflix.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson. My reading was already in a slowdown before COVID-19, and then it got worse. But I blew through this one, which is yet another Johnson gem and changes everything you think you know about pirates.

A Hidden Life. Back on the Terrence Malick train, baby, which I think has been wayward since 2012’s To The Wonder. Malick exhibits some uncharacteristic but welcome restraint with the camerawork and narrative structure (i.e. actually having one). Gorgeous Austrian countryside setting and soundtrack by James Newton Howard too.

Triple Frontier. Makes an accidental but fun double feature with fellow Netflix jungle action buddy drama Da 5 Bloods.

Statues and Star Wars

In an email thread about the controversies surrounding the removal of statues, I suggested we relocate all statues to museums and use the space for parks and Little Free Libraries.

But that’s destroying history! First Amendment!

Statues aren’t history, as this Twitter thread by Elle Maruska articulates well:

Statues are mythology. Statues are hagiography. If you care about history as a discipline, as a way of analyzing the past, tear down every single statue.

Somehow, the history of Nazi Germany is available without statues of Hitler in every German square.

We can somehow still access the history of Mussolini’s rule without having statues of him in Rome.

We know about Ceaușescu without his stone visage glaring out over Bucharest.

Statues tell us about how we understand the present, not the reality of the past. Statues teach us nothing but who we find worth elevating into godhood. Statues are about the lies with think are worth believing in. Statues aren’t history.

The recent spate of statue removals run the gamut from coordinated (Theodore Roosevelt’s) to chaotic (Madison’s). But all of them share the same underlying sentiment, as articulated by Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi (the only good Star Wars movie):

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

The irony of this sentiment is Kylo spends the entire movie trying to actually kill connections to his past but still can’t fully shake them. (After all, the past isn’t past.) As James Whitbrook writes:

So maybe “Let the past die” needs to be paired with another great quote about legacies from The Last Jedi—something Yoda says to Luke, as they watch the glowing embers of the burning tree on Ahch-To: “We are what they grow beyond.”

Just as Rey learns and grows beyond what Luke and his failures can teach her—just as she steals away those ancient Jedi texts before they can be destroyed forever, to potentially build upon their ideas herself—so must Star Wars as a franchise if it’s going to keep adding more and more stories to its ever-growing saga. Respect its past, learn from it, and let it go and move on.

As a long-running franchise and “ever-growing saga” itself, America needs to take the best of its past and let go of the rest.

Which isn’t the same as forgetting or destroying it. To me it means severing ties from two contrasting yet equally toxic and “bitter clinging” impulses: nostalgia, which insists the past was better than the present, and resentment, which only finds fault with it.

Let the past be only what we grow beyond.

When the past isn’t past

Alan Jacobs:

If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.

See also: synchronicity.

Feet stuck in the muck and eyes trained to the sky

I’d never heard of the poet Timothy Murphy until reading about him in the Prufrock newsletter that mentioned him after his passing. He specialized in poetry about hunting, something I’ve accumulated an amateur’s worth of experience in over the years. Intrigued, I checked out his book of poetry Hunter’s Log: Field Notes, 1988-2011 from the library and stumbled upon the following poem “The Blind”, which I found to be a beautifully bittersweet evocation of duck hunting.

The Blind

Gunners a decade dead
wing through my father’s mind
as he limps out to the blind
bundled against the wind.

By some ancestral code
fathers and sons don’t break,
we each carry a load
of which we cannot speak.

Here we commit our dead
to the unyielding land
where broken windmills creak
and stricken ganders cry.

Father, the dog, and I
are learning how to die
with our feet stuck in the muck
and our eyes trained to the sky.

Refer Madness: Various Vignettes

refer madness

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

Since transitioning to a new position at work last year, I’m no longer on the reference desk. (Also the library is currently closed due to COVID-19, so there’s that.) But I didn’t want to let my list of ideas for this series languish, so here are a few short vignettes from desk shifts past.

1. A woman told me of sending a picture of a painting she made to a friend, to which the friend replied “It’s not my taste.” “I think she’s a bitch,” the woman said. She goes on about how she thinks the friend is jealous, and that she’s not sure what she’s getting out of this friendship. She’s more disappointed than anything. The friend is very rich but her other friends were nice about the painting.

2. An older woman who’s a regular patron from eastern Europe told me about her son, who’s a physicist: “…but you wouldn’t believe how much asshole he is.” After I helped her with her question, she said, “Thank you. What a country.”

3. The dad who wanted to check out Scythe so he could keep up with what his teen daughter was reading.

4. The dad taking note of titles on the New Books shelf for when his kids are older and he can read for pleasure again: “I don’t want to miss any good ones.”

5. A regular asked for recommendations for movies about psychopaths. I rattled off a few that came to mind, which she was grateful for but also replied, “You’re eerie…”

6. The nerdy 10-year-old kid who was so excited to find books on the subjects he loved: baseball and Star Wars.

7. The teen girl talking to her dad on the way out of the library: “I texted Kelly to ask if she wanted me to pick her up a book from the library and she said ‘You’re funny; I’m watching Netflix.'”

An ‘Unorthodox’ Harmony

It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.

I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.

(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)

Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.

One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.

When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:

In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.

And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,

is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella ­Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.

I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.

As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”

Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).

Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:

one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.

Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.

(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)

Songs for Singin’

The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite band right now) are releasing their new two-disc album Songs for Singin’ two months early “so families can listen to some positive tunes while they stay home.”

The first single is “Hope Machine”, a jaunty tune that was written before COVID-19 but still pointedly speaks to the current moment:

Loved these lines:

Talk quiet and listen loud
Teach humble and learn proud
Scuffle with the struggle
And wrestle with the pain

There’s lots more sophisticated and pithy life advice that’s both timely and timeless tucked into a song supposedly written just for kids. But that’s the Okee Dokee Brothers for you.

Couldn’t pre-order fast enough.

Obi-What Can I Be

I took the Statistical “Which Character” Personality Quiz from the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, which they describe as a “slightly more scientific but still silly” version of those Buzzfeed “Which Character Are You?” tests I mostly avoid.

Here are my top five results, with the percentage of overlap in perceived personality traits:

  1. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (87%)
  2. Daniel Jackson, Stargate SG-1 (86%)
  3. Lester Freamon, The Wire (85%)
  4. Bruce Banner, Marvel Cinematic Universe (84%)
  5. Derrial Book, Firefly and Serenity (84%)

And I don’t even like Star Wars. Haven’t seen Serenity/Firefly or Stargate SG-1, but I’ll take Lester Freamon and Bruce Banner any day. (Maybe not The Hulk though.)

I looked up some Obi-Wan quotes to get a better sense of him (here’s his personality profile from the test) and yeah, this is about right for me:

You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

The truth is often what we make of it. You heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.

Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin, they betray you.

Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

If you define yourself by the power to take life, the desire to dominate, to possess…then you have nothing.

(Gotta say I’m very proud of this post’s title.)

What practical lessons have you learned from movies?

A while back I started keeping a list of things I’ve learned from movies. Not grand philosophical lessons about life and love and all that, but practical, everyday stuff. Stuff I’ve integrated into my life specifically because I saw it in a movie. When I saw this tweet recently along the same lines, I thought I should share what I’ve accumulated thus far, assuming that I will continue adding to it.

In no particular order:

“Just start from the outside and move your way in.”Titanic

I don’t attend many fancy dinners, but when I do encounter more than one type of the same utensil, I think of this line.

“Keep your station clear.”Ratatouille

I’m borderline religious about this now. Whether during meal prep or cleanup, I try to keep things moving quickly through the process so I’m not left with a mound of work at the end.

“Cardio.”Zombieland

All of the rules from this movie and its pretty decent sequel are tongue-in-cheek, of course, but also sound about right for surviving a zombie-infested world.

“You know that ringing in your ears?”Children of Men

Julianne Moore’s character continues: “That ‘eeeeeeeeee’? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.” Now every time I hear that eeeeeeeeee, I give a silent goodbye to that particular note.