For Filmspotting’s latest poll, they ask which of the provided movie failures you are the biggest cheerleader for. The criteria: “These are movie ‘failures’ that paired well-respected, ‘auteurist’ filmmakers with existing properties—and high expectations—resulting in significant disappointments critically and (usually) at the box office.”
Check out the poll for all the options. I’ve only actually seen two of them, but there was only really one answer: Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
Sure, as a ’90s kid there was a little bit of nostalgia that influenced my vote. But it wasn’t nostalgia alone. I’ve rewatched it as an adult and found it to be a superbly directed, campy, and effervescent reimagining of a classic story, with a dynamic Robin Williams performance and jubilant John Williams score.
And as the father of a toddler, the part that really hit me on the rewatch was what Peter’s wife Moira said to him after he snaps at his kids:
Your children love you. They want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon Jack may not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones that want us around. After that you’ll be running after them for a bit of attention. It’s so fast, Peter. It’s a few years, then it’s over. And you are not being careful. And you are missing it.
Watchmen (TV show). This whole limited series is something special, but the three-episode stretch of “This Extraordinary Being”, “An Almost Religious Awe”, and “A God Walks Into Abar” is spectacular. I went into this basically as a Watchmen neophyte and came out a believer.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs. “If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.”
The Vast of Night. A fairly astounding debut feature. The Twilight Zone meets Pleasantville meets Super 8. Available on Amazon Prime, and I’d recommend learning as little as possible about it before watching.
I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.
The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.
The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.
Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.
Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)
The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.
Diving into the divine milieu
Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.
He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.
Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.
That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)
Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.
My toddler teacher
A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.
Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.
I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.
I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.
I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.
Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.
My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.
You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.
One of my favorite books of all time is Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, a retelling of the Titanic’s demise. I finally got around to watching Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film adaptation of the book on a beautiful Criterion Blu-ray from the library, and it got me wondering: what about the iceberg?
In both the 1958 film and James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster, we get some ominous shots of the iceberg as the ship tries to avoid it, and then some ice chunks sliding across the deck. But after that, the iceberg disappears. For how much we know about the Titanic and its passengers, there’s far less out there about what turned the Titanic story into legend.
I love this article from Gizmodo that charts the iceberg’s incredible journey, beginning as “snowfall on the western coast of Greenland somewhere around 1,000 BCE” and ending when it “likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911 and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913.” In all likelihood, “the iceberg that sank the Titanic didn’t even endure to the outbreak of World War I, a lost splash of freshwater mixed in imperceptibly with the rest of the North Atlantic.”
Despite that, we have pictures of it! Not an easy feat in 1912:
In the parlance of The Rewatchables podcast, this may be one of the greatest heat-check performances by a natural formation in history. Basically comes out of nowhere, ventures far beyond where it should be, gets suddenly and violently rammed in the middle of the night by an enormous ship, then melts away within the year.
Such an improbable journey dovetails with the fate of the Titanic itself, as Lord wrote in the original book:
What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday . . . if ice conditions had been normal . . . if the night had been rough or moonlit . . . if she had seen the berg fifteen seconds sooner—or fifteen seconds later . . . if she had hit the ice any other way . . . if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher . . . if she had carried enough boats . . . if the Californian [just ten miles away] had only come. Had any one of these ifs turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.
I recently rewatched The Patriot for the first time in a long while. I was big into this movie as a lad, so rewatching it as a thirtysomething dad was something of an experiment to see how my adolescent tastes hold up.
There’s good (John Williams’ score, Mel Gibson as likeable movie star) and bad (how benign slavery is depicted in colonial South Carolina, a lot of the writing and acting to be honest).
But there was one aspect of The Patriot I appreciated completely differently than before, and that’s the depiction of fatherhood. I also noticed just how much the movie shares in common in that regard with an entirely different movie: Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar.
(Here be spoilers.)
There were two moments in The Patriot that kinda breezed past me before but totally annihilated me this time around.
“We named him Gabriel”
The first act finds Gibson’s Benjamin Martin as a kindly if emotionally distant father butting heads with his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who joins the Continental Army against Benjamin’s wishes, and his second-oldest, Thomas, who’s eager to join once he’s old enough.
When the British kill Thomas and capture Gabriel, Benjamin enlists the younger sons, Nathan and Samuel, to ambush the British unit and rescue Gabriel. All three sons survive but then witness, a bit stunned, their father’s repressed brutality unleashed in a fit of rage and grief for Thomas.
Benjamin and his sons respond to this differently. Gabriel rejoins the war effort. Nathan expresses pride in the ambush. The younger Samuel withdraws into a post-traumatic cocoon. And Benjamin succumbs to shame: for failing to protect Gabriel and Thomas, for subjecting the younger boys to the terrors of war, and for letting his violent past overcome him.
Yet the ambush earns him a serendipitous (for my purposes) nickname: the Ghost. It’s fitting for his subsequent militia fighting style, with its emphasis on guerrilla tactics and ability to evade capture. But it also signifies his presence—or lack thereof—in his children’s lives.
He carries all of this and more into the climactic battle, where he finally avenges the deaths of Gabriel and Thomas at the hands of the ruthless Colonel Tavington. Before heading home, Benjamin says goodbye to his friend and fellow soldier General Burwell (Chris Cooper), who tells him that his wife recently gave birth to a son.
“We named him Gabriel,” he says. It’s such a simple moment, elegantly delivered by Cooper, that manages to avoid mawkishness and serve as an emotional capstone to Benjamin’s long journey, which included losing two sons and his home.
“Papa, don’t go!”
Back on the daughter side of the Martin family, Susan is the youngest child and most distant to Benjamin. She refuses to speak to him, whether due to her still grieving the loss of her mother or being resentful of Benjamin’s long absences. Even after he visits the family while on furlough, she continues to stonewall him.
But when he sets off yet again, she finally lets go:
Papa! Papa, please don’t go. I’ll say anything. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.
Reader, I cried. It’s a wrenching moment of a father and child equally longing for connection before yet another separation. I couldn’t bear to consider such a moment ever befalling me and my son—now a rascally and wondrous 18 month old.
It didn’t matter to Susan that Benjamin was riding off to avenge his sons and fight for a political cause. Her Ghost was disappearing again, and she finally had something to say about it.
And this is where Interstellar comes in.
(Again I warn of spoilers.)
“Ghost of your children’s future”
A key motif in Christopher Nolan’s near-future, time-bending space drama (a recent subject on Filmspotting’s Oeuvreview, a series I helped coin) is the “ghost” that young Murphy claims is haunting her room and sending her messages in Morse code. Her pilot father, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, is leaving on a mission that will take him decades in Earth-time to complete, but the despondent Murph insists the ghost’s message is telling him to stay.
In a heartbreaking scene, Cooper comes to her room to say goodbye and offers a bittersweet reflection on parenting:
After you kids came along, your mother said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ And I think that now I understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.
Cooper’s prophecy comes true when he completes his mission and then, in another heartbreaking scene, watches years’ worth of messages from his kids, who bitterly rue his absence:
We also discover that the ghost in Murph’s room was actually Cooper himself, trying to communicate with Murph from across spacetime.
And that’s where Benjamin and Cooper—an 18th-century soldier and a 21st-century astronaut—also have now magically linked across spacetime: as fathers desperate to return to their children, and not merely as phantoms of themselves. They even share their goodbyes:
Benjamin to Susan: “I promise I’ll come back.”
Cooper to Murph: “I love you forever, and I’m coming back.”
A Hollywood cliché? Maybe. Would I say it and mean it to my own child? Absolutely. Which is not something I would have predicted as a youngster.
Perhaps that’s the benefit of rewatching movies at different life stages. As Roger Ebert wrote about why he loved La Dolce Vita so much: “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life… It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”
Having been working from home since mid-March, I’m incredibly lucky to have had more time with my son that I would have otherwise spent away at work or on my commute. “Kids spell love T-I-M-E,” my own dad has said. It’s an insight that The Patriot and Interstellar have made ever more resonant.
A friend of mine recently posted: “Let’s stir up some controversy: What are your thoughts on The Lion King?” I replied that a certain song on that soundtrack was a top-5 Disney song, and it wasn’t “Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata”.
That inspired me to consider how I would actually rank the best Disney songs. My needlessly arbitrary rules:
only one song per movie (live-action or animated)
from a movie that’s actually a musical where characters sing songs, not just a movie with a lot of original songs (sorry Tarzan)
judging the song itself, not the movie it’s from
Let’s get to it.
Just missed the cut
“The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book (1967), “Under The Sea” – The Little Mermaid (1989), “Not in Nottingham” – Robin Hood (1973), “Love Is An Open Door” – Frozen (2013)
I must admit that seeing the superior Broadway stage version has made me partial to that version of the soundtrack (both of which were composed by Disney music maven Alan Mencken). But for the purposes of this list I have to go with the opening number, which ably and jauntily establishes the setting and characters in under five minutes. (Runner-up: “Seize the Day”)
To be honest I barely remember Mulan and most of its songs, so the fact that this one stands out so much is a testament to its enduring appeal. The a cappella chorus towards the end is a nice touch. (Runner-up: None)
Happy to show some love for Randy Newman since his Toy Story work is ineligible. The soundtrack as a whole (which I have a history with) is a great showcase for jazz, zydeco, gospel, and blues—and this song is probably the most danceable on this list. (Runner-up: “Almost There”)
Nothing but respect for “The Rainbow Connection” from the original Muppet Movie, but this reboot and its music by Flight of the Conchords alum Bret McKenzie really surpassed (at least my) expectations. I favor the finale version of this song, which includes the entire ensemble. (Runner-up: “Pictures In My Head”)
For a long time this was my stock answer for best Disney song. It’s an Alan Mencken joint, after all, and I’m a sucker for a soaring strings-melody combo. (Also Jasmine is the most attractive Disney princess.) But it just kept getting pushed down the list as I considered other songs. (Runner-up: None)
This whole soundtrack is up there in terms of all-around quality. No surprise since it’s another Alan Mencken production. Just an explosion of gospel/soul ebullience. I went with this song over the runner-up because it sticks with one tempo and, as the finale, brings some extra zest. (Runner-up: “Zero to Hero”)
Guess who again? I swear I wasn’t tracking the composers when making this list, though I could have told you beforehand that Mencken would dominate. Anyway, this song rules. (Runner-up: “Happy Working Song”)
Like Hercules, this is one of the stronger soundtracks top to bottom. Even the villain song isn’t terrible. This particular track—while not the best sung given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s less-than-professional voice—is propulsive and buoyant like an ocean wave. Of the two iterations I’d have to pick the first, but the finale version provides a nice punch. (Runner-up: “Where You Are”)
(Spoiler warning on that link as this song ends the movie.) To date, this is the only Disney song that has given me goosebumps and tears at the same time. I now watch Coco every Dia de Los Muertos while thinking of my ancestors, and this song is a hell of a climax for such a tradition. (Runner-up: “Un Poco Loco”)
I think I’m as surprised as you are. As I mentioned above, “A Whole New World” was my #1 for a long time. But listening to this one recently, I was struck by an epiphany that it’s really just an amazing bubblegum pop song. Goofy, sure, but with a killer guitar/flute (?) hook, colorful bass lines, and an inspired chord progression. I once played a stripped-down acoustic guitar cover of it at an open mic and still worked brilliantly. Think I’m getting wildly out of wing? Nah—this is my finest fling! (Runner-up: “Circle of Life”)
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 Manhuntby 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 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.
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. [Update: turns out the official term for this is quodlibet!] 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.)
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:
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (87%)
Daniel Jackson, Stargate SG-1 (86%)
Lester Freamon, The Wire (85%)
Bruce Banner, Marvel Cinematic Universe (84%)
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.)