Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Review (page 1 of 13)

The Seventh Seal

Because the only screengrabs of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal I’ve ever seen are of a knight playing chess with Death, I really thought that would be the whole movie. Just a Very Serious Film that would be more film-buff obligation than an enjoyable experience. But wow, am I glad to be mistaken. It’s a profound, disturbing, grotesque, even goofy film, impressively rooted in religious inquiry but humanist at heart.

Two quotes stood out from Antonius Block (played gracefully by a young Max von Sydow), a disillusioned knight returning home from the Crusades to plague-ridden Denmark. His wager with Death—being spared if he wins—sets him apart as a determined, sensitive, and thoughtful seeker. So his wrestling with God is keenly felt:

“Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way—despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

Yet later, while enjoying a moment of solace amidst the chaos of his journey, he practices a Middle Ages form of mindfulness and calls out his gratitude:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.”

This is only the third Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen after Winter Light and Wild Strawberries. My regard for Bergman has shot up based on the caliber of these three alone. God bless Kanopy (free with a library card) for making it available. Looking forward to discovering more.

And John Tyler too

When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.

I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.

Tyler Who?

John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.

He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.

He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.

One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.

This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:

  • Democratic-Republican (1811–1828)
  • Democratic (1828–1834)
  • Whig (1834–1841)
  • None (1841–1844)
  • Democratic-Republican (1844)
  • None (1844–1862)

Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.

Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.

(Is that my Yankee showing?)

As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.

Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May

  • At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
  • Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
  • Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
  • In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
  • Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
  • Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
  • Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
  • Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
  • Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
  • Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
  • Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
  • Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
  • Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
  • Despised the word “national” and what it represented
  • Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
  • Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
  • Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
  • Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
  • Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
  • Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
  • Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
  • Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
  • Letitia died in 1842
  • Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
  • Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
  • Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
  • In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
  • Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
  • Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
  • Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
  • Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
  • Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
  • First president to decline to seek second term
  • Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
  • Had 15 kids between two wives
  • 1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
  • Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
  • Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
  • Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
  • Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
  • Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
  • Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
  • Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War

Quisling: What’s in a name?

In July 2016 I visited the Norway Resistance Museum in Oslo, which told the story of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II. A name that kept popping up throughout the museum was Vikdun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who collaborated with Hitler and seized control of Norway’s government during the occupation.

I wanted to know more about the man who put himself in that position. What compelled him? What happened in an occupied country during World War II? And how did his name instantly and internationally become synonymous with “traitor”?

Luckily there’s a book on him: Quisling: A Study in Treachery by Hans Fredrick Dahl. It’s definitely niche history—I had to get one of the few library copies via interlibrary loan—but as a part-Norwegian World War II buff this happened to be right up my alley.

The crux of this story is that Quisling honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Highly intellectual, aloof, and humorless, he dreamt of establishing Universism—his homegrown philosophy combining Lutheranism and science—as the “new world religion”, with Norway as the homeland of the supreme Nordic race. In that respect, along with his anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism, his eventual partnership with Hitler made perfect sense.

Once the Nazis occupied Norway, and its King and legislature had fled London with the other governments-in-exile, Quisling and his National Union party quickly filled the power vacuum, working with their Nazi occupiers to establish a fascistic, one-party authoritarian state.

But being an occupied country that officially was neither at peace nor at war with Germany stymied Quisling’s ambitions for a “new order” in Norway. (The goal of this new order? To stamp out the “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”.) And since Hitler refused to discuss peace terms until the Axis had won the war, Quisling in his quasi-legitimate government was left to tussle with his German commissars from above and the Norwegian resistance movement from below.

Throughout it all, Quisling remained naively optimistic about leading an independent Norway into his utopian future. Even when Germany capitulated and the war was over, he assumed he’d take part in a peaceful transition back to the old Norwegian government. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad at the Akershus Fortress, which, in a delightful irony, now houses the aforementioned Norway Resistance Museum.

Dahl’s book is admirably thorough, so most people will probably prefer the Wikipedia summary of his life story to a 400-page book elucidating the same. But I’m glad for such an in-depth study of a tragic figure at a crucial historical moment.

(And for the realization that one of the few spots the Quisling name lives on is in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, at the super-cool looking Quisling Clinic, which was founded by Quisling’s cousins.)

Notes & Quotes from the book

  • At military academy Quisling scored highest average examination in 100 years
  • Held high regard for Soviet organizational skills, if critical of Bolshevik policies
  • Skills were more organizational and staff-bound rather than executive and creative
  • Developed theory of Universism, which combined Christianity with modern natural sciences, especially physics
  • Original manuscript over 2,000 pages; final 700-page version from 1920s; dense and ambitious but not good
  • Dreamt of establishing Universism as ‘new world religion’, Norway as homeland of Nordic race; like “a combination of the United Nations and the Catholic Church”
  • Became a scholar of Soviet Union, studied Russian, and was appointed military attaché of Norwegian legation in Petrograd in 1918
  • Present during Terror, and sent back reports that were widely read including by the King, before he was forced home
  • Book about Russia shot him to fame in Norway, and began slide toward fascism; founded movement aimed at overthrowing Marxism, enhancing Nordic race
  • Defense minister of new Agrarian Party, then new National Union (NS) party
  • Little sense of irony, not much humor, crippling shyness, aloof, but highly respected for his mind
  • Knew Norway wouldn’t be able to remain neutral in war due to its strategic significance and low defense spending
  • Urged cooperation between British naval hegemony and German continental ambitions
  • His growing anti-semitism signaled ideological sympathy with Hitler; thanked him for having “saved Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”
  • Thought Hitler was wrong to sign pact with Stalin given how advanced Germany already was, and knew Red Army was weakened by purges so wouldn’t be able to conquer Finland
  • Envisioned Germany would topple Soviet government and reestablish nation-states with German capital
  • Met with Hitler December 1939 while reported Britain to use Norway as transit country to aid Finland; Quisling offered loyalty from his party
  • Preferred neutrality but didn’t think it possible, so would act in Germany’s interest to prevent British establishment
  • Hitler saw value to occupying Norway before Britain could
  • Naval skirmishes between Germany and Britain in April: King and government relocated, but Quisling characterized as fleeing and initiated coup
  • Quisling hoped for legal appointment understanding from King, but King refused to accept man twice beaten at the polls
  • Wide campaign to get rid of Quisling as he sought legitimacy
  • Hitler supportive at first but then in setting up “government commission” put Quisling in reserve; when commission failed Hitler sent Terboven to command Norway occupation
  • Miscalculated public’s feelings and sense of morality
  • Quisling name almost immediately became international byword for traitor
  • Curried Hitler’s favor as they strategized voting in new occupation government; became prime minister due to his warning of Britain
  • Quisling’s “New Order” in Norway stamped out “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”
  • Unresolved whether Norway and Germany were at war or peace; Quisling wanted full NS government to provide legitimacy and eventually got it, though with Reichskommissar
  • Sincerely believed he was doing the right thing for Norway and eventual Nordic dominance
  • Oslo University source of strong anti-NS “Home Front” resistance, along with prominent bishop Berggrav, who had tried to broker peace in Berlin and London
  • Photos of “Fører Quisling” everywhere, became authoritarian state sans functioning legislature and King
  • Quisling sought to limit NS membership despite one-party rule to strengthen quality
  • Edict to make youth service in NS Youth Organization compulsory backfired, as did new teachers corporation; when backed by bishops, revolt began
  • Mass teacher resignations followed by large-scale arrests
  • Lobbied Hitler for peace treaty but was denied and remained occupied country, also lost direct contact with Hitler
  • Had different ideas of future than Hitler, whose world domination plans were more improvisatory
  • Began rounding up and registering Jews in 1942
  • Hitler refused to negotiate peace because then other occupied countries would want it, and Quisling’s dreams of Norwegian supremacy dashed
  • After Hitler died, naively assumed there would be peaceful transition of power back to exiled government
  • Arrested May 8; said he knew suicide would be easiest but wanted to “let history reach its own verdict”; thought he’d be deified
  • Quisling Clinic in Madison founded by cousins in interwar years; otherwise name has disappeared

Black Panther

So, did it meet my expectations? Definitely. I can’t believe writer-director Ryan Coogler is only 31, and that Michael B. Jordan (also 31) has been in so many great roles already.

I couldn’t help noticing the similarities to Wonder Woman. Hotly anticipated origin stories of beloved but neglected characters, both featuring hidden utopias, badass bands of female warriors, and powerful but conflicted scion-heroes at first uncomfortable with their power and soon disillusioned by unveiled secrets.

And like Wonder Woman, I think the critical hype got just a little too far ahead of the final product. But here are a few things that stood out:

  • Editing. For a long time I’ve pined for an action movie that doesn’t resort to filming an action scene in jump-cut shaky-cam chaos. This one still does, especially in the final act, but the casino fight scene early on is a thing of beauty. Seemingly in one take, the camera flows through the action steadily and lets us behold the combat as if we were there. More of this please!
  • Music. I’m thankful it’s not just more Superhero Action orchestral noise, but a creative mix of hip-hop, African-style percussion, and vocal flourishes.
  • Cast. The bland Martin Freeman aside, they got a crazy-good cast here, with Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, and Michael B. Jordan providing most of the energy and charisma. And though I think he’s perfectly fine here as T’Challa/Black Panther, surely Chadwick Boseman isn’t the only black actor available for the Black Male Icon roles. Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall weren’t enough?

I saw it Sunday morning of opening weekend. We got to the theater a little before showtime and the lines at the box office were crazy long. Quickly found out that our desired showing was sold out, and the next one was in 3D. The last 3D movie I saw was Avatar, which was cool I guess, but the 3D was kinda dark and blurry from what I remember.

Not the case with Black Panther. The image was crisp and bright, and the wide shots had a cool miniaturized look (not sure if this is common to 3D movies or not). Regardless, I was happy to donate the surcharge to help its monster opening weekend.

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics

School of Rock

“We’re not goofing off. We’re creating musical fusion.”

The video of a guy drumming to the “Just give up” speech from School of Rock inspired me to rewatch that 2003 Richard Linklater film for the first time in a while.

It’s a meaningful movie for me, coming out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. Our guitarist/singer even had the same Gibson SG guitar that Jack Black’s Dewey uses.

At first, we’re meant to see Dewey as a delusional has-been, if a true believer in rock music’s ability to “change the world.” But in his new role as accidental teacher and musical mentor to a class of talented prep school kids, he finds a positive outlet for his enthusiastic idealism (if under shady circumstances). And his maxims about what rock is really about become sound wisdom for impressionable minds rather than just eye rolling platitudes.

This is evident in the scene where the band comes together to make something new together in Zach’s song. Not only does it capture the excitement of “creating musical fusion” with bandmates, but the smile that emerges on Dewey’s face as he steps back to watch the kids come into their own as musicians is a testament to the joy of creative potential being realized.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout, not even counting the “I have been touched by your kids” scene. You really have to be a Jack Black fan to enjoy most of them, if not the whole movie. But even if you aren’t, I can’t see how he wouldn’t win you over with his relentless, goofy energy and legit talent.

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Thoughts on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Whenever the punching started, Thor: Ragnarok felt like a Marvel movie. Once the punching stopped, it felt like a Taika Waititi movie. Luckily Waititi’s mark on the movie is strong enough to overwhelm the underwhelming elements.

The Thor movies are my least favorite of the MCU thus far—I dare you to tell me anything about The Dark World—and I think Marvel understood that, which explains the left-field choice of Waititi. The goofy, laid back, self-effacing style of comedy he brings to what’s otherwise standard superhero fare follows the trail blazed by Guardians of the Galaxy but also ends up on a planet of its own.

It’s a damn shame Cate Blanchett’s Hela—Thor’s banished sister and Goddess of Death—is relegated to the film’s B-story. Not only is she a way better villain than Loki, Blanchett looks like she was having a ball. Alternating between petulant narcissism and terrifying fury, she’s like if Galadriel took the One Ring when Frodo offered it and went on a Middle-earth killing spree, demon antlers in tow. She deserves to be in more Marvel movies.

Jeff Goldblum seems to have achieved a kind of Bill Murray status where he is effusively praised for repeatedly playing himself.

Move over, School of Rock. “Immigrant Song” has a new movie home.

Columbus

Columbus, the first feature film of the talented film essayist Kogonada, calls enough attention to its subjects to captivate viewers but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit, which is usually a formula for great cinema.

Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, a recent high school graduate, works at the library in Columbus, a small Indiana town that’s a mecca for modernist architecture. She lives with and cares for her mom, a recovering addict now working in a factory. She says she loves Columbus, but you get the sense she’s also stuck in it.

Then there’s John Cho’s Jin, a literary translator who comes to town when his architecture professor father suddenly falls ill before a lecture. The two meet by chance as Jin holds a grudging vigil for his comatose father, whom he openly resents despite, or because of, his academic renown.

Sensing a spiritual match in the other, they wander Columbus looking at the modernist buildings, looking and wondering at each other, and looking inward, perhaps in search for what Jin’s father referred to as “modernism with a soul.” They struggle with their pasts and parents as they struggle toward a companionship that takes as many forms in their few days together as the buildings they gaze at.

They begin as strangers, become debate partners, and end up confidantes as they forge a temporary intimacy borne out of commonalities, though sometimes tensed by their differences.

The burdens they wrestle with—Jin with resentment toward his ailing father and Casey with her traumatic past—loom almost as large as the buildings, captured with determined stillness by Kogonada both as background scenery and as havens for Casey and Jin’s ambling.

The power Kogonada gives to moments of silent observation is the film’s strength (even if it made it seem a tad too long). In that way Columbus felt like a Midwestern version of This Is Martin Bonner, with characters yearning for connection while trying to soldier through minor existential crises in an alienating modern milieu.

I’d only seen Cho as Sulu in the new Star Trek franchise and Richardson as Hailee Steinfeld’s friend in The Edge of Seventeen, so they both kinda blew me away here. Bolstered by Parker Posey and Rory Culkin in supporting roles—Culkin’s conversations with Casey in the Columbus library about literature and librarianship made me smile—the two leads shoulder the film equally and prove as complex as their surroundings.

Grateful as always to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for bringing in movies like this.

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