Categories
Books Film

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.

Categories
America Film History

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.

Categories
Film Love Music Religion Television

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.)

Categories
Film Television

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.)

Categories
Film

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.

Categories
Film

Behold the Oeuvre-view

Since becoming a patron of Filmspotting on Patreon, I’ve really enjoyed getting ad-free episodes and participating in the production-related chatter.

Recently they were looking for a clever title for a new segment that would be a chronological retrospective of a filmmaker’s work, in anticipation of revisiting Christopher Nolan’s work before Tenet debuts in July. (Assuming, I guess, that we all won’t still be quarantined.)

A few suggestions popped up: Filmography-spotting, Grand Tour, Box Set. Then I added my own: The Oeuvre-view.

I thought that name would have several merits: it’d be fun to listen to Adam and Josh try to pronounce it each time, ‘view’ is related to ‘spotting’, and its double entendre covers the purpose of the project, which is to provide an overview of a filmmaker’s oeuvre.

Cut to yesterday as I listened to the latest episode and heard my name mentioned, along with the fact that Oeuvre-view was the chosen one!

Adam wondered if the title was meant as a joke, but let me reassure you that I consider thinking up punny titles for things my solemn duty. Regardless, I’m honored it was selected and excited for the segment in general.

If you don’t already listen to Filmspotting, get on that. It’s great for both hardcore cinephiles and casual viewers looking for a deeper appreciation of movies old and new.

Categories
Film Life Television

On the magical realism of Mister Rogers

My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.

Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.

At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.

That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.

This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.

Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)

That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2019


Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.

10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.

9. Booksmart. Charming as hell.

8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?

7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.

6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.

5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.

4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.

2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.

1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.

Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The FarewellUs, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird

Favorite non-2019 films:

The Big Country
Hard Eight
Jackie Brown
Minding the Gap
A Clockwork Orange
Saturday Night Fever
Swingers
Cold War
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Wages of Fear

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

My initial list for this endeavor had 77 movies. After I barely managed to winnow it down to 50, I just couldn’t figure out how I’d get to that arbitrary yet appealing round number of 10.

But once I realized most of the movies could be grouped pretty cleanly into 10 different categories (some of which I devised myself), that allowed me to compare movies of the same genre or subgenre to each other rather than to movies doing something completely different. Using that system, my top picks of each slot fell almost immediately into place.

Note that the list ranks the movies, not the categories they represent. The categories made picking the top 10 easier, but the finalists in each one—consider them my honorable mentions—wouldn’t have necessarily ended up in the same ranking and often could fit in several of the categories.

As with all best-of lists, I strove to use an alchemy of my head and my heart to make the final determinations, consulting my yearly best-of lists and trusty logbook to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It was at once overwhelming and rewarding to consider all I’ve seen and decide both what has stuck with me the most and what best represents a decade in cinema.

Here’s what I got.

10. This Is Martin Bonner

this-is-martin-bonner.jpgA serene and sure-handed film about two men with a faith problem, which inspired one of my favorite blog posts.

Category: Quiet Drama

Finalists: Moonlight, The Rider, Paterson, Ida, Columbus, A Ghost Story

9. Arrival

arrival.jpgHow could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?

Category: Sci-Fi/Dystopian

Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster

8. Minding the Gap

minding-the-gap.jpgA stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.

Category: Documentary

Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter

7. The LEGO Movie

lego-movie.jpgWhat should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.

Category: Comedy

Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris

6. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad-max-fury-road.jpg

Submitted without comment:

mad-max.gif

Category: Action

Finalists: Creed, Noah

5. Spotlight

spotlight.jpgThis video by Nerdwriter1 gets at what makes this movie so compelling and why I’ve returned to it repeatedly, despite the heaviness of the subject.

Category: Searing Drama

Finalists: The Florida Project, Like Someone In Love, Calvary, First Reformed

4. The Social Network

social-network.jpg
The final confrontation
between Mark and Eduardo might be the best scene of the decade. I’d wish for more collaborations between David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, but how would they top this?

Category: Creative Nonfiction

Finalists: The Founder, The Favourite, The Death of Stalin

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-man-into-the-spiderverseAn electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.

Category: Superhero

Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman

2. Lincoln

lincoln.jpgA biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hits album (cough Jersey Boys) with bad aging makeup (cough J. Edgar), but as a focused, intentionally contained story that captures its subject and his times with an appropriate mix of reverence and rigor.

Category: Historical Drama

Finalists: Selma, Brooklyn, Inside Llewyn Davis, Roma

1. Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water.jpgBut 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

—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

Lots getting tangled up in this steely, ruggedly graceful, no-bullshit modern western: family, friendship, the past, the future, tragedy, redemption. A dangerous momentum drives the two bank-robbing brothers and the lawmen hunting them through a dust-choked Texas toward their fates. All we can do is buckle up and hold on.

Category: Family Drama

Finalists: Wildlife, Boyhood, Before Midnight

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

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

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.