Small Things: Bob Dylan’s Press Conference

So, as you may have already heard, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature today. This may or may not be interesting news to you, depending on a few things, but one big factor is age. If you are around my age, you probably have one of only a few possible relationships to his music:

  • You have an older relative who is an absolute Dylan diehard who has taken every opportunity throughout your life to shove his music down your throat, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. You have probably, at some point, after sighing deeply and rolling your eyes, said the sentence, “Yes, Uncle Joe, I know Nashville Skyline is his true underrated masterpiece, but this is Thanksgiving, and I really just want to have some pie and watch the Packers beat the Lions.” To you I say, I hope your pie was pecan, I would bet the Lions lost by 40 that year, and while your Uncle Joe is a little pushy, he’s not wrong, and you should give Dylan more of a chance, and I will hopefully convince you of that below.
  • You don’t really listen to Dylan, but you’re aware of him and his music in a general sense, and you know that you’re supposed to say he was good and important and influential when having conversations about music history, but just don’t really give a shit all that much and are content listening to the things you know you like. To you I say, you’re missing out, but do you. Live your best Dylan-less life. You can stop reading this now if you want, but below I try to explain a bit more why he was so beloved and important.
  • You actively dislike him, and think he has a scratchy, nasally voice and all his songs sound like nonsense poems with the same four chords plodding along in the background. To you I say, wow that is harsh. Lighten up, man. I’m empathetic that his voice is a little rough on the ears at first listen, but once you get into him I promise one of his lyrics will suddenly smack you in the face with the realization that it perfectly says something you’ve always kinda thought, but never quite had the words for, and were pretty sure no one else had ever thought, but here you are, listening to Dylan tell it to you better than you ever told it to yourself. You can also stop reading now if you want, but maybe you’ll keep reading if I promise you that I’m not actually going to discuss any specific songs below, but just an interview where he exclusively uses his speaking voice. I would also say, again, lighten up, man.
  • You just kinda started listening to him on your own, charted your own unique path through his discography, and have a solid set of his songs you know and love, but are quite aware of – and maybe even humbled and in awe of – the fact that continuing to explore his discography will probably be something you do for the rest of your life, and are the first to admit you have a woefully incomplete understanding of his work. (It me).

 

The one thing that people my age don’t have, and will never have, is the experience of listening to Dylan’s career as it unfolded, from the 60s to now. Which, unfortunately, is almost definitely the best way to have listened to him, if only because you had so much more time. To freshly start listening to Dylan now, and try to understand his career as it happened, you would have the tall order of listening to 30+ studio albums, hours of bootleg recordings, tens of hours of concert videos and interviews, countless essays from great writers about his music, his memoir, his paintings and sculptures, Martin Scorsese’s 208 minute documentary No Direction Home, and probably a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting or have never even heard of.

The bad thing about being forced into this approach is that you really have no other option. To try to know, like, and appreciate Dylan, you just have to start trying to tackle this massive body of work and digest as much as you can. The good thing about this approach is that you can do it absolutely however the fuck you want. Start with Uncle Joe’s favorite, Nashville Skyline, then jump to another album that has an album title that caught your eye. Start chronologically if you want, and try to trace his evolution for yourself. Make a playlist and cherry pick song titles you recognize and just listen to 10-15 songs for a while. Stay up until 4:00 am watching three and four minute YouTube clips in grainy black and white footage. His career is your oyster. This is the wonderful process of having unlimited access to virtually unlimited music and video content. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of listening to music. Take advantage.

When I started this process, at first I was just listening and reading as much as I could. But eventually, I had a 4:00 am YouTube night. I wanted to watch every Dylan clip that I could find on the internet. There’s a lot of good shit out there that I could write about. There’s the Judas concert, the Time magazine interview, or the one where he just plays with the words on a sign, just to name a few. But my favorite is the one embedded below, which is just an excerpt from No Direction Home (many YouTube clips are just excerpts ripped from No Direction Home), but uses great footage from a press conference in 1965.

He has three exchanges with reporters in this clip probably best explain why I find him so endearing. Here is my transcription:

Exchange 1:

R: I’d like to know about the cover of your album. I’d like to know the meaning in the photograph with you wearing the Triumph t-shirt.

Dylan: What would you like to know about it?

R: Well, I’d like to know — that’s an equivalent photograph. It means something. It’s got a philosophy in it, and I’d like to know visually what it represents to you, because you’re a part of that.

Dylan: Um, I haven’t really looked at it that much.

R: I’ve thought about it a great deal.

Dylan: It was just taken one day when I was sitting on the steps, you know. I don’t, uh, I don’t really remember anything too much about it.

R: But what about the motorcycle as an image in your songwriting? You seem to like that.

Dylan (lighting a cigarette): Well, we all like motorcycles, to some degree.

R: I do.

 

Exchange 2:

Reporter 2: Do you prefer songs with a subtle or obvious message?

Dylan: With a what?

R2: A subtle or obvious message.

Dylan: A message? You mean, like — what song with a message?

R2: Well, like, Eve of Destruction and things like that

Dylan (after a pause): Do I prefer that to what?

R2: I don’t know, but your songs are supposed to have a subtle message

Dylan: A subtle message?

R2: Well, they’re supposed to

(whole room laughs)

Dylan: Where’d you hear that?

R2: In a movie magazine

(more laughter)

 

Exchange 3:

 

R3: Mr. Dylan, I know you dislike labels, and probably rightly so, but for those of us who are well over 30, could you perhaps label yourself and tell us what your role is?

Dylan: Well, I sort of label myself as well under 30, and my role is to, you know, just to stay here as long as I can.

 

Transcribing those words don’t do them justice because he says as much with his tone as he does with his words. In the first exchange, the reporter is asking him to explain the album cover of his recently released (at the time) album, Highway 61 Revisited. On the cover, Dylan is pictured sitting on a stoop, wearing a Triumph motorcycles t-shirt. The reporter asks the question in a way that sounds a lot like he’s really asking “I’m writing a piece on your new album and want to discuss the cover art, but I’m not sure my interpretation is correct. Please give me the definitive answer as to why you wore this shirt on your album cover so that I can be sure I’m not wrong.”

But Dylan deflects the question, because he senses what the reporter is really asking, and disagrees with the very premise of the question. Dylan, quite frankly, is just too smart for this shit. He understands the intentional fallacy and the separation between art and artist and the beauty of subjective interpretation. If he gave a direct answer that was just “The motorcycle symbolizes freedom, which is a recurring theme on the album,” then that reporter would go write an article about how Highway 61 is all about freedom, and he would go and revisit all of the lyrics and explain to his readers how they are about freedom. But in deflecting, Dylan preserves the album as a piece of art that can stand on its own and be interpreted and challenged however the listener wants.

Dylan made things that mattered and people cared about by not trying to do that and instead just making something he wanted to make and letting people decide that it mattered. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, that is still very much relevant to the today’s musical landscape.

The second exchange is a more comic example of the same idea, because the reporter asks a much less specific question in the same vein: “Do you prefer songs with a subtle or obvious message?” This is such a gloriously weird question that I’m so glad was asked at a video recorded conference so that we can preserve it for all time. I will show it to my grandchildren. How did she expect him to answer this question? By expounding at length about the difference between text and subtext, with examples of some of his favorite songs with each subtle and obvious meanings, and conclude by saying that he instills subtle messages in all his songs that only the real fans will get? If taken seriously, that question may require a 2,000 word answer. But again, Dylan sees the question as just a little too opaque, just a little too ridiculous, just a little too assuming.

So he asks her for an example and she cites “Eve of Destruction” (by Barry Mcguire, which also came out in 1965) as a song with a message. Still unsure about what exactly she’s getting at, he asks for a counterexample. At this point, the reporter realizes she’s not even quite sure what she’s asking: “I don’t know, your songs are supposed to have a subtle message.” Dylan repeats her: “A subtle message?” and the now embarrassed reporter replies “Well, they’re supposed to.” The whole room laughs. All Dylan does is repeat her question to her and ask for examples to clarify what she means. But she can’t do it, because even she’s not quite sure what she’s getting at, because it’s a silly question to ask in the first place.

This could partially be just that she was ill-prepared for the press conference, and went in there with one question she hoped he’d answer earnestly. But I also think it’s indicative of just how clueless everyone was with the phenomenon of Dylan in 1965. This is a moment that really aids someone my age trying to understand the totality of his career. Dylan was already famous in 1965 to be sure, but it would’ve been impossible to comprehend the full impact of his career on popular music. Bob Dylan was a name in 1965, but he wasn’t a fully crystallized cultural idea like he is in 2016. People seemed to desperately want to nail down that fully crystallized idea in 1965, and they didn’t quite know how to do it without just asking him to do it for them. When he turned that idea back around on them, and made them really consider what they were asking, they were able to see the absurdity of that request and just laugh. That’s incredible.

The third exchange also asks Dylan to define himself, but is framed in such a way that makes Dylan give a half-decent answer (though certainly not the one the reporter was looking for) instead of just outright deflecting. The question is “Could you perhaps label yourself and tell us what your role is?” which seems like the exact kind of thing Dylan loved not to answer, but it’s prefaced with “I know you dislike labels, and probably rightly so, but for those of us who are well over 30”. The preface allows Dylan to make a joke about the man’s age before giving his most serious answer yet: “My role is to, you know, just to stay here as long as I can.”

He’s not going to just outright take up the mantles people want him to take up. In a 2005 interview shown just after the 1965 press conference (about the 2:30 mark), Dylan says “I had no answers to any of those questions, anymore than any other performer did, really. But, you know, that didn’t stop the press or people, whoever they were, from asking these questions. For some reason the press thought performers had the answers to all these problems in society and you know what can you say to something like that, it’s just absurd.”

History will remember Dylan’s early work as protest music that was broadly used by activists to advocate for civil rights and protest war throughout the 60s. But while it was happening, in the moment in 1965, he refused to acknowledge that that’s exactly what was happening. The press wanted him to own his role as a strong cultural force who had the ability to influence large swaths of young Americans with his music. But, for reasons both artistic and political, he refused. This doesn’t diminish his role in 60s protest movements, but it does allow him to distance himself from the effect his art had and insist that he is just one person who simply wanted to make the things he wanted to make. Those things happened to have political power, but only because his listeners wanted them to and applied them to political causes. He did not create them with the express purpose of political revolution in mind. He created them to put something he liked and cared about into the world. He never wanted any of that. He just wanted to keep making music as long as he could. Or at least, he thinks it’s important that you believe all of those things.

These brief exchanges from 1965 encapsulate something that I find and appreciate in all of his work: he is a master at disguising his intentions. He turns serious questions into jokes and uses jokes to hide his serious answers. Everything he says and does is as poignant and resonant as you think it is, but also allows you to listen to it for the 50th time and then go Oh shit, that’s what he really means, only to then convince yourself Wait no, this is what he really means on your 100th listen. That’s a damn good artist.

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Small Things

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an odd, existentially frightening phenomenon, which perhaps is best understood through this question: how many small events, cultural landmarks, and artistic influences do you count as essential in some way to your identity, are upon closer examination, largely arbitrary?

The recent deaths of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and now Prince have had me considering the art and artists that I hold dear to me, why I do, and how devastated I would be if they were to die.

Most of the things I love, I love because I stumbled upon them, seemingly randomly. I don’t really remember when I started listening to Bob Dylan, except vaguely around my sophomore year of high school. But there was no magical moment that Dylan just clicked for me. I just sort of fell into him and thought “Well this is some pretty amazing stuff” and kept listening.

Which I guess is how it happens for a lot of people. But for some it wasn’t Dylan. It was Bowie or Merle or Prince. And now those people have their hearts broken. And I don’t. I just get to watch them try to cope, which is oddly cathartic in its own way. Because I respect a lot of these people a great deal.

But what about those who have cried this year over Bowie, Merle, and Prince? What if they only were into them because their parents were and that’s who they grew up with? How was that fair? Why is it they got stuck with an abiding love for one of them while I got to love Dylan?

Maybe the key is that I just kept listening to Dylan, I just kept exploring his vast discography and it kept resonating with me so I kept going. This has not happened for lots of artists, who I’ve listened to once and either not liked, or liked and wanted to discover more, only to find that there was no more. The one album I loved was the only album they had.

But Bowie and Prince have similarly expansive catalogues. I could have gotten equally lost in them. And the margin of difference of genius between Bowie, Merle, Prince, and Dylan is minimal at best. There’s just as much depth, heartache, soul, and artistry in each.

Of artists I hold dear, Bob Dylan is about as long a personal relationship I’ve had, save maybe James Taylor. Maybe what I’m trying to get at will make more sense with a more recent example. Recently I’ve gotten really into the music of John Prine.

I got into him through an Old Crow Medicine Show cover of one of his songs, “Angel From Montgomery”. I’ve known about this song for a few years, but for whatever reason (possibly boredom or merely idleness), a few weeks ago I finally felt compelled to check out some of his other stuff. Immediately, I fell in love.

I felt like I’d found a lost son of the ‘70s that no one talked about anymore who was just this forgotten genius. This is an awesome part of being born in 1992. Impossibly large numbers of hours of legendarily brilliant music was recorded before I was born. By the time I get old enough to wise up and dig into it, everything I discover will feel like an ancient gem that no one else knows about. But I’m not sure if that’s awesome or sad. I’ll never track John Prine’s career and enjoy it progressing naturally.

Or, to use a more somber example with another artist I’ve loved for a long time: I’ll never fully understand what it means to be devastated by the rumors of Freddie Mercury’s illness, his declining health, and his heartbreakingly too-soon death. All of that happened before I was born.

I will only ever have the totality of Freddie’s career. And I’ll forever have to enjoy it outside of its natural chronology, mashing all the hits together in whatever order I like, viewing everything through the prism of his tragic death. How can I appreciate the young promise of his early cuts, singles, or even first album? How can I ever imagine viewing one thing and only one thing, without everything else clouding my interpretation of it?

I can’t. I never will know what that’s like. All I have is his collected works, staring at me, filler songs begging to be listened to, even though they know I don’t have to. (If the only reason to listen to filler songs is that you love the artist and will listen to anything while waiting on the next album.) But there is no next album. Freddie died in 1991 and he’s not coming back.

But what do we do with this realization, that much of our identity is arbitrary, that we had little choice in which parts of our culture we use to define ourselves as individuals. Is this a frightening notion? Or a liberating one?

Does it make us cower at the looming presence of predestination and relegate free will to an afterthought of the human condition? Or does it make us want to dive into the most esoteric movies, music, and literature we can get our hands on, so as to define ourselves with the smallest possible group and not the big cultural signifiers that will be remembered to history? (And to therefore identify as as much of an individual as possible, sharing common roots with a few thousand people rather than tens of millions.)

I don’t think there’s a right way to respond to this realization. I think both of the above reactions, or something somewhere in the middle, are natural and fine. But I also know that however this realization strikes you, we all have a drive inside of us to find things that resonate, and to point to them and say “Yes. That. There’s some of me in that. I can feel it.” and to tell others the same, so that they may say “Me too.”

And that is a good human thing to do. Even though others may not always respond “Me too.” They may not see themselves in the same thing. That’s okay. That’s what happened with me on Thursday. People were pointing at Prince and his art and they were sad. And I didn’t get to point too and say “Me too.” I just got to sit there and read and listen.

But there will come a time when it’s me whose heart is broken, when my heroes have gone, and I don’t know how to understand that part of me is gone too, and all I’ll be able to do is point to all the old things they made and say “Yes. That. There’s still some of me in that. I can feel it.” Some people will point to the same things and say “Me too.” But others will just sit and listen and read. That’s okay too.

Listening to why people think certain things make them them when you don’t feel the same way is just an important part of being human. It is how we survive. It is how we endure. It is how we cope.

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Short

(or I or Me, and Possibly You; or The Point of all This Stabbing; or How Else Should we Spend our Time; or I think the Title Should be One of These or Possibly None of These)

 

It’s a silly thing, to try to write. Or to speak. To try to use words to convey meaning. It’s an absurd thing to try to do. A futile thing. As if you can possibly communicate the complexity of the emotions you feel with a few scrawlings on a page? Because that’s what we’re doing, we writers. We just stab at the page with our pen until some of the scrawlings align into a thing that hopefully means something to I or me, and possibly you.

To a large portion of the world, the scrawlings will never mean anything, because they don’t speak our language. But language itself must be important, because every civilization, everywhere, for all time, has formed one somehow. But the very existence of so many different languages must mean that none of them really work, or else we would have ended all the fuss and just picked one.

But we are not inherently silly or absurd beings; there must have been a good reason to try and create a language that worked. I suppose the impetus for creating language was a noble one, or perhaps an essential one.

It probably started with names, with the desire to have something to call each other. I am me, you are you. But, sometimes I can be I, although you will still only be you. Unless you are the one to use the language yourself, of course, in which case you can also be me and sometimes I. And then, of course, I will be you, if it is still we who are using the language together. But do try to stay on top of whether you are I or me, and possibly you, or else I’ll get confused. Look at us. We’ve established three words, and we’re already struggling.

It’s a miracle we ever got past this stage. But we did, somehow, and progressed from naming ourselves to naming the things around us and the things we were doing. Because everything must have a name, or else how should we know it? How should we make sense of it, as it relates to I or me, and possibly you? Which of course, is the only good reason to talk about a thing, to identify its relation to I or me, and possibly you (which is, of course, the purpose of the thing itself).

So we started naming the things we did. Moving was probably first. When we first moved we wanted to name that motion so we said we were walking. So when we moved we were walking and when we were not moving we were not walking (perhaps not was how we decided to distinguish when I was I or me or when I was you, because when I am not I or me, then I must be you).  But there were also times when we were walking faster, and we started walking so much faster it seemed distinctly different from both walking and not walking so we had to make a new word and call it running.

But then we saw ourselves moving at a speed that was between walking and running and we did it often enough to make it feel like a significantly distinct event and thus it warranted yet another word and so now we had jogging, which inevitably led to an ever-expanding list of subtle distinctions in regards to movement including sprinting, romping, prowling, marching, prancing, striding, sauntering, strutting, trotting, strolling, parading, pacing, waddling, meandering, wandering, plodding, moseying, waltzing, ambling, limping, hobbling, and crawling, amongst others, of course. And for the actions not related to movement, we also came up with a whole set of names to describe all the tiny different ways we would do any given action.

And then we even named this set of all these names and named it language, or more likely, the name for the language that was now used by I or me, and possibly you.

Even our set of names had a name, but none of the names ever really said what we were trying to say. The names always fell short. Sometimes just by a bit, but short nonetheless. They never attacked the essence of the thing itself. As soon as we thought we had something nailed down, we finally had a word that meant the thing we had been trying to say, the thing itself changed, and we were forced to create yet another word.

The frustration that we will never truly be able to properly describe our world will only lead us to create more words that attempt, again, in vain, to describe it. The signifiers will increase ad infinitem but the signs, well there have only ever been so many signs.

That’s the sad truth about language. No words will ever be enough. They will always fail us. They will always fall short. There is no way to truly describe a feeling or an event. Things just happen and we try to assign words to them so we can tell others, so they can join in on the experience of observation with us, so they can feel the feelings we feel, and feel warm in all the same spaces. Even when we experience the same things, the warmths of personal observation are never identical.

Despite this truth, I suppose we’ll continue. We humans, we writers. Stabbing our pages. Mashing together old words. Making up new words all day long that only fall short. Maybe there are a few words out there we just haven’t thought of yet. Maybe there’s just one that gets at the essence of some indescribable thing we’ve been trying to say for years and have said a thousand different ways but they’ve all fallen short so far, they’ve all failed to show how the thing relates to I or me, and possibly you.

Maybe there’s just one word that I’ll pick someday, and I’ll think it really gets at the heart of what it’s supposed to mean, it’s the one word that finally succeeds. Maybe someday when I feel like an I and I think there’s a you who I want to tell about that thing that this word means. Maybe you will actually want to listen to my word, to stoop your ear and really listen. Maybe I’ll whisper this word in your ear, in between I and you and then you’ll look at me and I’ll see the smile in your eyes and you’ll see the smile in mine and we’ll know that we found the word and we’ll speak the word to no one else, because they wouldn’t understand it if we did, because they are not us.

After all, that’s the whole point of all this language, right? To find a thing, give it a name, and show how it relates to I or me, and possibly you?

I suppose I will continue to write. To stab at my page in vain. And to search for words. I suppose you should too.

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Oscar (P)review #1: Boyhood

boyhood_still

I remember a day at football practice during my junior year of college.

It was towards the end of the day and the offensive linemen (my position) were off in a corner by ourselves, pretending to look busy as the rest of the team wrapped up practice. The offensive line coach was standing at the front of the group, pretending to instruct us on something football related.

In reality, he was asking us the same question, one by one. “What is the greatest movie of all time?” he’d say, pointing to one of us.

The Godfather,” someone said. Coach scoffed, and then asked another player.

Citizen Kane?”

“What? Hell no.” Coach pointed to someone else.

“I don’t know. I don’t really watch movies.” Coach pointed to me.

I thought for a second, considering what might be his favorite movie.

The Shawshank Redemption.”

“Hell yes, that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Brannan! You see that, everyone? Brannan gets it.”

Everyone laughed.

Coach told us to be quiet or else the rest of the team would know we weren’t actually talking about football.

Everyone got quiet again.

A few months later, I noticed The Shawshank Redemption was on TV and texted my coach to let him know it was on. He replied,

“No sir, Shawshank is too great to overwatch or ever watch on TV. Once every five years, I watch it alone. It is my mistress.”

He was always an easygoing, funny guy, and I’m sure the comment about the movie being his mistress was in jest, but I completely believed he was serious about the first part. I also remember thinking at the time that there wasn’t a movie I could think of that I felt the same way about. I had some favorites, sure, but nothing felt that sacred to me that I would only watch it by myself every five years. I remember being genuinely impressed by his love for Shawshank. I wasn’t sure I would ever feel the same way about a movie.


Boyhood-3

One of the beautiful things about movies, and all art, is that you get to evaluate it as you, from the perspective of who you are and where you are in life. Most of the reviews I read about Boyhood contained a line saying that it perhaps should have been called Parenthood, both because of how wonderful Patricia Arquette is in the film, and in how central a role her character plays. And by and large, I think that’s a fair assessment.

Arquette is wonderful, and obviously the single mother she plays is crucially central to the raising of the titular boy. But I think this assessment mainly comes from the fact that most of those critics (I’m guessing) are at the earliest in their late thirties and at their oldest in their sixties. I don’t know if they are all parents, but if so, it would have been Arquette’s performance that they most strongly identified with. The Academy certainly seemed to agree with this idea, awarding her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress, the movie’s only Oscar win.

As for me? I’m 22 years old. I’m not a parent. I don’t have plans to become one. I hope I see man set foot on Mars before I have children. That’s where the idea of children is in my brain right now. Just beyond Mars.

Because of this, I couldn’t really access the same level of empathy these critics felt for Arquette. Although, I certainly appreciated how well she played a loving, struggling, burdened single parent whose every decision was an attempt to provide the best life for her two children, despite so many decisions going so terribly.

So, as my current 22 year old self, I much more identified with Mason, and at times, his sister Samantha. But even though I most closely identified with Mason, his story is not my story. There are some notable differences between us.

Mason is raised primarily by his mother, with periodic visits from his charming but man-child father. I was lucky enough to be raised by two loving parents in one household my whole life. Mason moves across Texas several times. I made one cross-town move that didn’t even force me to change schools.

Mason never really gets into sports. I played baseball, soccer, and basketball at a young age before turning all of my attention to football in middle school. Mason’s dad likes to take him camping when he visits. My dad preferred to bond indoors, watching football on TV, and I did too.

Mason doesn’t receive his first Bible until his 15th birthday, when it’s gifted to him by his stepmother’s parents. Growing up, I attended church with my family every Sunday.

I could go on.

But for all the ways that our stories are different, there were so many ways that Mason’s story was my story.

In part because we shared so many of the same cultural milestones. In middle school, all he wanted to do was play Halo 2, which was all I wanted to do in high school. He attends the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at a bookstore. I made my dad pull over to find a Borders in the middle of a road trip so we could buy that book. We both had sisters who sang Britney Spears on loop just to annoy us.

We also share some of the same personal quirks. We both had rock collections when we were young. We both went through a phase in high school when we thought technology was turning everyone into vapid narcissists and debated deleting our Facebook accounts in protest. Mason lets girls paint his nails. I used to let girls draw on my arms with pen (don’t judge me; it was a thing in high school).


boyhood_a

But anyway, about the movie itself.

Boyhood tells the story of Mason, a boy.

I wanted to continue that sentence with “…who does this and this, then this happens” but that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s just about a boy. Named Mason.

Mason lives in Texas, the son of a mother who is forced to raise Mason and his older sister, Samantha, by herself as their father (Ethan Hawke) works on a boat and tries to write music in Alaska. When we meet Mason his mother is picking him up from school near the end of his Kindergarten year. When we leave Mason, he’s about to watch the sun go down on the day he moves into his freshman college dorm.

As you may have read, this film employs a unique aging technology: time. The filming happened over 12 consecutive summers in Texas, and the actors only age naturally. I knew this going into the film, but when I saw Mason in the first scene, as a small, daydreaming child barely out of the toddler phase, I thought it would be impossible to tell his story over the next three hours.

But they did. They pulled it off.

I assumed the task of condensing twelve years of a boy’s life would be done with the familiar #Americana milestones. Learning to ride a bike. Playing catch with his dad in the front yard. His first kiss. His first beer in high school. Maybe being offered weed at a party. Asking a girl to prom. But, thankfully, it doesn’t. It doesn’t try to tell every American boy’s story, it just tells Mason’s story. In doing so, it tells at least part of the story of almost every American boy.

When I noticed the movie wasn’t going this route, I expected it to use some other sort of milestones to track Mason’s life, but it just kept refusing to do so. When his mother remarries for the first time we see a scene of her making tentative plans to go out with her psychology professor followed by a scene of Mason and Samantha suddenly in a new, much larger house with their stepbrother and stepsister, welcoming their mother home from her honeymoon. The wedding itself is merely implied.

When his mother remarries for the second time, she is now the psychology professor and it is her student who has become a permanent fixture at their dinner table. There’s nothing even close to fanfare. One day he’s just there, with a ring on his finger, drinking beer and lecturing Mason about respect.

Mason later refers to his stepdads as “the parade of drunken assholes” to his own father, with a small laugh.

I don’t know whether the screenwriting, editing, or cinematography should be more heavily praised for making this style seem so effortless and seamless, but praise to Linklater and his team. In their hands, months and years flash by without the use of cheap title cards or any other sort of announcement that time has passed. Sometimes you notice Mason age from one scene to the next, sometimes you don’t. Such is life.

This approach to chronicling Mason’s life, by glossing over what we typically consider to be major life events, is what made the movie feel so honest to me. Instead of major milestones, it focuses primarily on the minutiae, the small moments we inexplicably remember years later that for some reason we choose to define how we became who we are today. The movie feels like Mason looking back on his life, choosing all of the scattered, small, but significant, memories he has.

This sentiment is reflected in the final scene, where Mason watches the sunset after hiking with his new college roommate (Dalton), Dalton’s girlfriend, and her friend, Nicole. Mason is sitting with Nicole, and they share a wonderfully awkward and heartfelt exchange. It’s clear that they both already have crushes on each other, but it’s only the first day of college, so they’re trying to play it cool.

As they sit and watch Dalton howl at the sun (he’s high), Nicole says,

“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”

Mason looks at her as she watches Dalton, and then shifts his gaze to Dalton and Nicole looks at Mason. They smile, and the movie ends.

And it’s there that I got my answer for why the movie was structured the way it was. It was a collection of the moments that seized Mason, from Kindergarten to his freshman year of college. As if Mason was the director and editor of his own life, choosing what moments he felt best reflected how he grew over the past 12 years.

When I first saw Boyhood, I was blown away. I wandered around aimlessly for the rest of the day, trying to comprehend everything I had just seen. My roommate and I tried to talk about it, identifying certain things we liked. But we couldn’t really find all of the words. One of us would say something about it that we liked and the other would just say “Yeah…” Agreeing, but unable to really elaborate.

It took me a long time (six months, another viewing, and then another month) to really be able to put into words what this movie meant to me.


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This post is pretty late (I wanted to get it out before Oscar Sunday) for a lot of reasons. My thinking through the movie allowed me to finally think through this feeling I’ve had for the last 10 months or so, since I graduated from college.

I’ve been in a weird place in my life since then, mentally, emotionally. It’s an odd transitional phase. It feels like I was thrust into adulthood, but I still very much want to be in my boyhood.

In college it felt like the opposite. College felt like a first glimpse of adulthood, but that was just an illusion. Everything was still taken care of by my parents: I had a meal plan, I didn’t have to work, I just had to go to class a few times a week, and I could go out whenever I wanted (once football ended). I liked to think it was a small taste of adulthood at the time, and it just wasn’t.

But I wanted it to be. I’m not sure why. I loved college. It was a time of great personal growth in a lot of ways. I’d kill to go back now. But right now I think is somehow more of a transitional phase than college ever was. All of a sudden certain adult realities are just here. I have real responsibilities with real consequences, both for myself and for others. I have to think, and worry, about money now.

So what does this have to do with Boyhood? I saw it at the beginning of this transitional phase of my life, about a month after I moved to New York. I walked out of the theater feeling like I’d just seen my entire life thus far (minus college) condensed to a little less than three hours and put on display. Or at least a documentary about an alternate version of my life.

It felt almost too close to home, and it stayed with me in a way no film had before. Since I had just finished college and Mason was just starting college that was the time period I kept thinking about. From where Mason ended in the film to where I was when I saw it.

I wanted to reach into the movie and tell him how great the next four years were going to be for him, how many lifelong friends he would make, how much he would learn about himself. But then I turned back to my own life and got a little scared about the uncertainty of my next four years. Mostly because that time frame was now completely arbitrary.

Four years from now there will be no graduation for me. There will be no wearing a scratchy robe, no sitting in neat rows of chairs with my classmates in a gymnasium. There will be no week of bittersweet parties, no nights getting drunk on a couch and laughing about memories made. There will be no date at the end of May that I start eyeing warily in January, hoping it doesn’t come. There will be no months of dread at the fact that I’ll be leaving a place I’ve loved.

Tracking my life by schools and sets of four years is done now. I did it twice, for high school and college, and they were great. But now, it just doesn’t make sense to track time like that. Now there’s just more time.

I’ll be somewhere four years from now, and I hope I’ll be happy. But there won’t be a momentous, singular day to point to as a transition between this current phase of my life and the next one. Or if there is, I can’t see it right now.

Realizing that is unsettling. Because it’s all I’ve known for the past eight years. As soon as I first stepped foot in my high school as a freshman, I had graduation as a distant point on the horizon, marking the next phase of my life. And then I had the same distant end goal for college. And there was an odd comfort in that.

As much as I wanted to reach through the movie and tell Mason how amazing his next four years would be, I equally wanted someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me how amazing my next four years would be.

Which they may be, but it doesn’t seem as certain. And it’s not as definite as four years. I could have a significant shift in my life three years from now. Or five. Six. Ten. Nobody knows. Hopefully I’ll get to a point where I can think of this as a positive. Where it doesn’t scare me anymore. Where I realize that life doesn’t just come in sets of four years.

But there is one thing that I know will now happen every five years. Once every five years, I will watch Boyhood, alone. Five years from now, I don’t even know what city I’ll be living in. When the movie gets to the end, and Mason is still about to embark on his college career, I wonder what my 27 year old self will want to tell him. I wonder if I’ll still long for someone to tell me my next four years will be wonderful.

Adulthood is weird. I want boyhood forever.

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Oscar Preview #2: Whiplash

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Whiplash is the directorial debut of a young director named Damien Chazelle, whose IMDb page only credits him with directing two other short films. One of them is called Whiplash and was a short version of the feature film. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for Whiplash, so as his first major film, it’s pretty fair to say it was a passion project for him.

I’m pretty fond of movies that feature “written & directed by” tags. Tarantino, the Coens, Spike Jonze (Her, Where the Wild Things Are), and Paul Thomas Anderson movies are all among my favorites. I think it just ensures me that the product on the screen is completely aligned to the writer’s vision, because the writer is also the director. I just know going in that I’m going to get an almost perfectly clear picture of this person’s creative vision.

Because of this, I had high expectations for Chazelle going into Whiplash. Not only did he not disappoint, he far exceeded my expectations. There’s no over-the-top feats of cinematography that I noticed, like in Birdman, but the pacing of the movie is near pitch perfect. Which it sort of had to be, since the story revolves around a drummer’s desire to be one of the greatest drummers of all time.

That drummer (Andrew) is played by Miles Teller, who previously I’d only seen doing bad bro-comedies (21 & Over, That Awkward Moment, and Project X), but he also far exceeds expectations in Whiplash. His mentor (Fletcher) is played by J.K. Simmons, who is in almost everything, but rarely in a featured role. You probably know him best as the Farmers Insurance guy or the editor of the Daily Bugle in Spider Man who inspired this meme:

aww yeah

The two of them put on an outstanding duel for the entire film that keeps you anxious during every scene but eager to see the next one. Andrew starts as a quiet first year student at America’s finest music conservatory in New York City called Shaffer. He’s only the backup drummer on the freshmen squad but he practices late into the night, and in no time he’s noticed by Fletcher and called up to the studio band.

It’s here that Andrew starts to see the rage in Fletcher, who he idolizes. Fletcher curses out a trombonist for being out of tune, and generally abuses and berates other band members for minor mistakes, to no protest from the abused or their band mates. While this side of Fletcher is new to Andrew, his impression of him remains untainted, as he’s still just as determined to become an all-time great jazz drummer.

Andrew soon gets his first chance to play with the studio band, and not just back up the core drummer. The band plays “Whiplash” and Andrew goes in confident, almost smug that he’s finally getting the chance to become the coew studio drummer as a freshman. When Andrew falls off tempo, Fletcher throws a chair across the room, narrowly missing Andrew’s head. Again, there is no protest from his band mates. Andrew is shamed and forced back to the backup chair.

More determined than ever, Andrew rededicates himself to his late night practices. In wordless scenes he furiously beats his instruments until his hands blister and bleed. He dips his hands into 10 gallon buckets of ice water to accelerate the healing. Eventually, partly due to dumb luck, Andrew wins the spot as the core studio drummer. From here the abuse only accelerates.

At one point Fletcher is livid with Andrew and Carl (Andrew’s backup) and calls in Ryan, from the freshman team, to stage a three way competition for the core drummer position. While the rest of the band waits in the hall, the three drummers rotate for hours, trying to match the impossibly fast tempo Fletcher demands of them.

This scene is where I really started to appreciate Chazelle’s skill as a director. He builds the marathon competition to a crescendo with a montage that blends shots of each drummer playing, being rudely rebuffed by Fletcher, and the rest of the band growing restless in the hall, glancing at the clock as the hours tick by. The tension in the montage builds to a thrilling emotional boil, that is particularly impressive since Chazelle can’t use music to build tension since music is the subject of each scene.

When Andrew finally plays the piece to Fletcher’s satisfaction, the scene ends with Fletcher simply saying “Nieman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drum set?”

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(DISCLAIMER: To read the rest of this, you should really probably see the movie first.)

This movie asks a lot of questions about greatness. And about teaching and coaching and abuse. They are questions that have been debated elsewhere, but they’re done particularly well in this film.  They’re even discussed out in the open in a bar scene with Andrew and Fletcher before the breathtaking final scene.

A recurring story the characters keep referring to is how Charlie Parker became great. It’s a crucial reference point because it validates almost everyone’s sensibilities. The story is basically that as a young sax player Charlie Parker butchered a solo and his drummer, Jo Jones, was so furious he threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. After the incident, Parker buckled down in practice and became the greatest saxophonist of all time. Fletcher uses this story to validate his treatment of his musicians. Andrew uses it to validate the abuse he’s willing to take from Fletcher.

At a dinner party with family friends, Andrew claims “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 [like Parker] and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.”

In the bar scene near the end, Fletcher says the most crucial thing he does as a conductor is push people past their limits and that “Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker.”

I’ve never experienced abuse to the extent that Fletcher abuses the musicians in his band. Playing football for 12 years, I’ve heard plenty of things that those from other walks of life would immediately label verbal abuse. But for the most part, I never thought much of it. Sometimes it was homophobic remarks, sometimes it was just a personal attack, calling me soft or saying I just wasn’t good enough. There have been times this abuse pissed me off, made me refocus myself, and work harder to get better. There were other times this abuse cut a little too deep and made me feel woefully inadequate, even in other parts of my life. Still, there were other times when I was able to ignore the abuse, or just laugh it off. The same goes for verbal abuse I’ve witnessed coaches give to others.

I’d never really thought about those comments as abuse until this movie. Every football program I’ve ever been a part of took the concept of constant, daily improvement to an almost religious level. I owe the fact that I was able to play at the college level to having this concept hammered into me from a young age. The idea that making small improvements on a daily basis leads to significant long term improvement was crucial to my individual development.

Seeing Whiplash forced me to ask myself a few things. Have I ever been a victim of verbal abuse? Does it count as verbal abuse if I know they’re only saying it to motivate me? Would I be willing to withstand the physical abuse dealt to Andrew if it meant a chance to play in the NFL?

To the first question, I’d say no. I haven’t been a victim of verbal abuse. Because of the second question. I was almost always able to rationalize that they were only saying it to make me better. And when I wasn’t able to do so, teammates were always there to do so for me.

I remember my junior year of high school, my first year on the varsity squad, a senior offensive lineman was telling another junior who’d just blown an assignment “Hey, if we aren’t yelling at you, we don’t care about you. How else are you going to get better?” I remember thinking Oh, that makes sense. They’re yelling at us so we know when we mess up, so we can get better. Cool. I also remember saying the same thing to underclassmen when I was a senior.

I know this is a twisted way to show love and care for a teammate, but it was true. I also recognize that I’m only one person, and many people, especially when they aren’t shown by a senior that that’s just the way things are run on that team, may not be able to rationalize hurtful language as loving language.

As for the last question I thought of, about the NFL, I’d probably have to say no. First of all, there are too many factors that would also have to had happened for me to have even sniffed the NFL (including being ~4 inches taller and ~30 pounds heavier). But, as a thought experiment, let’s say it would’ve been a guarantee. I’m not so sure now. Playing in the NFL was a childhood dream I probably carried until I was 16, when I realized I’d stopped growing and it wouldn’t be possible. At a certain point in life, I would’ve given anything to play in the NFL.

All I’d have to do to earn that is withstand years of abuse from my coaches while rationalizing it was for my own good? That’s a tempting offer.

But there is one factor of that hypothetical, other than the physical requirements, that still makes me say I would turn down that offer. For all of the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants, the ultra-competitive, cruel assholes who fight teammates during practice and curse them up and down for not playing hard enough, there are Lebron Jameses and Kevin Durants who still call former teammates brothers and actively try to combat their “nice guy” reputations.

In other words, there isn’t a definite correlation with being able to withstand and/or dish out abuse and greatness. It’s possible to achieve greatness without that. There are other ways to push yourself beyond your limits. As Fletcher himself admits to Andrew, after years and years of pushing his students beyond their limits, “I never really had a Charlie Parker.”

But, to show the dangerous logic of self-validation, he continues “But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.”

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Oscar Preview #3: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

Birdman is a film full of internal and philosophical conflicts. The most prominent of which can be reduced to the above quote, which is written on a notecard and taped to a mirror in Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) dressing room. Riggan is an actor desperately trying to convince himself he is worthy of critical respect and that his work is important. Desperate to shake off the lasting image of his most famous role as the titular character in an ultra-successful superhero franchise, Riggan is writing, directing and starring in a Broadway performance of a play adapted from a Raymond Carver story.

If he can pull this play off, he’ll finally step out of the shadow of his former role and into the warm light of the serious, accomplished artist. He’s the underdog you’re supposed to root for, except instead of rooting for David as he faces Goliath, you’re supposed to root for Goliath as he tries to turn himself into David.

Visually, the film is stunning. I don’t know a whole lot about cinematography or specifically how it differs from directing. I think the hierarchy goes like this: the director takes the script and imagines how to shoot the scenes, then convenes with the cinematographer who actually executes those ideas. So the cinematographer is the guy who physically does all the camera work. If my understanding is correct, Birdman contains some of the most spectacular cinematography I’ve ever seen.

Most of the movie (1 hour, 41 minutes by my unofficial check-my-phone-before-and-after stopwatch method) appears to be one shot. One. Shot. After a few brief shots of seemingly random imagery (a comet falling from the sky, jellyfish on a beach) to open the movie, the camera cuts to Riggan’s dressing room, plays out a scene there, and then follows him to the stage, back to his dressing room, and just continues following characters without ever cutting to a different perspective.

Time marches on through a few days, but no scene every incorporates multiple perspectives. Watching the film feels like being a fly in the theater, buzzing just behind the characters and following the story wherever it goes. This lends a close intimacy between the film and the viewer that’s often mirrored by two characters in conversation on screen. Instead of cutting back and forth between close ups on two characters exchanging heated dialogue, which everyone has seen in almost every movie ever made, the cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s known to dominate tracking shots in films like Gravity and Children of Men) has to include the faces of both characters in one close up, requiring them to share an uncomfortably small space, like two boxers at a weigh in.

While this approach is impressive for the difficulty of its undertaking, I was also blown away at how effortless it seemed. The first time I saw Birdman it probably took me 30 minutes to realize it was even happening. The second time I looked for small cuts in between scenes, but only found moments when the screen would briefly go all black in a poorly lit hallway, or moments when the flowing camera would pause on the sky for a brief extra beat. I assume the cuts were made at these points, but it’s impossible to tell. I don’t know if this is more a testament to the ability of the cinematographer or the editor, but regardless, it was fantastic to watch.

The irony of this cinematic method used for this film is that it constricts your vision to a single perspective, while the script constantly forces you to consider multiple philosophical perspectives. The dialogue dances around the nature of art; whether it’s possible to create anything truly powerful and great, whether everything we do is ultimately self-serving, and whether or not artists should care about the opinions of their audience and critics.

This constant shifting of perspectives is what makes this movie so great to me. The supporting characters strongly defend their opinions and tug Riggan from one mindset to another and back again.

Emma Stone delivers a soul-crushing monologue as Riggan’s daughter, Sam. When Riggan insists to her that the play is important, she asks how anything could be important that’s only seen by “a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over” and concludes that “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow. Because, damn. Ouch. It’s pretty true. But it’s possible to convince yourself it’s maybe not true.

Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, a supporting actor in the play, constantly insists that the only truth is the truth on the stage. He drinks real gin on stage instead of water, gets an erection during a sex scene while struggling to perform in real life with his girlfriend, and chews out Riggan for using a gun prop that doesn’t look real enough. His struggle to produce real truth in his art is so earnest, he neglects the idea that there could be any truth in his own reality. He says he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, but when Sam says it’s cool that he doesn’t care he replies “Is it? I don’t know.”

Zack Galifianakis plays Jake, Riggan’s lawyer and possibly only real friend, who serves as a voice of reason and encouragement for Riggan, constantly picking him up and telling him that what he’s doing matters. That he’s capable of making something that matters. Without him the play, and Riggan, would have fallen apart multiple times.

The audience follows Riggan as he’s jerked between self-doubt and confidence, existentialism and nihilism, and the full spectrum of belief in his art. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when something is said convincingly, with strong enough emotional conviction, I usually believe it for a brief period before I can consider the full implications of the statement. When Sam tells Riggan that his play isn’t important and that he isn’t important, I basically thought “Wow. She’s super right. Art doesn’t matter. Why am I even in this theater? I should never write anything ever again.” and almost stood up and walked out to go kick trash on the street and cry.

Luckily, I didn’t. I stayed and started to consider what a sad worldview that is, and that while things may feel that way sometimes, there are plenty of times they don’t feel that way. Art is a process. It’s a conversation between creators and interpreters. Both sides get a say, and I’m not sure it really matters if they know what the other thinks. It varies, I think, based on the creator and the interpreter.

Birdman made me think a lot of my favorite poem, “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. I’ve copied the poem below, in its entirety.

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

That’s it. 28 words. About some plums.

It’s my favorite poem for a few reasons, which I’ll probably detail more fully in another post sometime. But for now, the main reason is there’s no other poem that I’ve so tirelessly wrestled with since I read it. When I first read it, my senior year of high school, my initial thought was “Fuck that. That’s not a poem. That’s bullshit. It’s only a poem because it’s in a book of poems.” (Teenage angst was dope.)

But slowly, I’ve come to realize that its legitimacy and beauty as a poem lies in its simplicity. Yes, it’s only 28 words and its subject matter is lowly. But that’s the point.

Consider it an experiment in art as a conversation. How little can a creator produce and still elicit a unique experience to the interpreter? There are so many ways to read that poem. It could be a sincere apology from a husband to his wife, or a child to his/her parent, or from Bert to Ernie. None of these interpretations are wrong because none of that information is stated in the poem. It all lies in this wonderfully blank subtext that you get to fill in as the interpreter. It puts all of the power in the hands of the interpreter.

“This is Just to Say” is an extreme example of the role the interpreter plays in creating art, but it’s just as true with more descriptive works of art. You’re never wrong in what you think about a particular piece, as long as you can back it up.

This is the idea that I don’t think Riggan understands. This is the missing piece that sends him spiraling into depression brought on by overwhelming self-doubt. He is obviously aware that interpreters have a big role in determining whether or not art is great, but he focuses so heavily on pleasing his critics that he loses sight of what he’s doing. The things that you most see Riggan doing is trying to keep the cast on the same page and worrying about how the play will be received.

Riggan forgets this:

Art isn’t about trying to make something that means something, it’s about trying to make something that someone hopefully might make it mean something. When you create something, it doesn’t matter if it means anything, it just matters that it is something, and that it can be wrestled with, it can be weighed, and measured, and stretched and squeezed.

If a thing is great to you, then it’s great. Because a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.

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Oscar Preview #4: Interstellar

In yet another reminder that I what I think doesn’t matter, Interstellar was not nominated for Best Picture. In a reminder to myself that what I think matters to me, and that’s good enough, I wrote this.

There have been a lot of movies about space. Most of them, I like. Because space is dope. Terrifying, but dope.

I remember one weekend in middle school my parents took me and my siblings to Kennedy Space Center. After that trip, I wanted to be an astronaut for a solid three months. Then I remembered I hated science. As amazing as that trip was, ogling real life spaceships and astronaut suits, I’ve always been even more spellbound by science fiction involving space.

Buck Rodgers? Amazing book. Ender’s Game? Best young adult novel of all time. I’ll fight you on that. Slaughterhouse Five?!?!? Space AND aliens AND time travel AND World War II?!? What is Vonnegut? Some kind of wizard? (Yes, yes he is.)

I know those are books, but the point is, I loved space stuff from a young age. Movies, too. Star Wars saw regular rotations on the VCR growing up, Mission Impossible kept me up at night, fearing I’d one day lose power in a spaceship, and Jimmy Neutron was the shit. There are obviously many others, but I loved those.

Going into Interstellar I was a bit nervous. I love everything Christopher Nolan touches, and he’s one of the best in the business at keeping big movies grounded in humanity, and I love McConaugnhey, especially in True Detective and Mud, and – holy shit – Michael Caine is in this too?! Is this going to be the greatest film of all time?!? Did this paragraph begin with me saying I was nervous? How could I have been nervous?

Because the recipe seemed too perfect. It couldn’t possibly live up to its billing. And honestly, it didn’t quite, that’s why it’s at number 4. But it was still a damn good space movie.

The central character is Cooper (McConaughey), a corn farmer, widower, and former NASA pilot with a son, a daughter, and a live-in father. His son is a straightforward, good ol’ boy who just wants to grow corn. His daughter, Murph, is precocious, lively, and viciously curious about the world. Murph’s intellectual spark doesn’t sit well with her teachers at school, where she is reprimanded for showing other students an outdated textbook that incorrectly states that the Apollo missions really happened. The updated school versions have the corrected version, stating that they were faked to give us a moral victory during the Cold War.

In the same meeting that Cooper meets with the principal to discuss Murph’s misbehavior, the principal tells Coop that his son won’t be going to college due to low test scores, and will take classes on farming for the remainder of high school. He says that humanity has an overwhelming need for farmers, not engineers or scientists.

This is the scene where Nolan shows us the path from present day to this futuristic dystopia. It’s basically this: humans stopped caring about space, and as a result, science in general, which led to catastrophic environmental consequences, including what is now a global food shortage.

Good dystopian literature takes a present issue, stretches it to a logical extreme in a hypothetical future, and uses it as a warning about the ills of present day society. Bradbury warned us of the dangers of censorship, abbreviated thinking, and valuing entertainment over the real world in Fahrenheit 451. Collins warned us of our dangerous love for reality TV, and the desensitization of violence, especially for our children, in The Hunger Games. And, of course, Orwell warned us about creepy Sony TVs in 1984.

The warning here is clear: if we keep cutting our space programs to fund other government projects that seem more immediately pressing, we won’t be able to solve future problems because we will have no scientists to solve them. While this may sound like hippie idealism-over-realism bullshit, I think Nolan is right.

After this stage is set, triumphing science and empirical reasoning over all else, odd things start happening. Unexplainable things that Murph attributes to “her ghost”. When a dust storm rolls through and Murph’s window is open, Cooper runs upstairs to shut it. Once he does, the sand starts falling in peculiar columns, which Cooper and Murph parse into coordinates.

The coordinates lead to an underground NASA laboratory where Anne Hathaway, Topher Grace, and several other ridiculously good looking rocket scientists are trying to figure out how to save the planet, under the guidance of Michael Caine, the brilliant British lead scientist in charge of all of the simple-minded Americans. It is here, probably at least 45 minutes in, that Caine said the words that made me go from liking this movie, to loving this movie.

First of all, Caine is in a unique class (with only Morgan Freeman) of Old Men I’d Gladly Listen to Read Anything. Textbooks, recipes, grocery lists, whatever. Everything he says seems like the most philosophically poignant statement ever made. The combination of his British accent and his caring, wise face just shoots the emotion of everything he says through the roof.

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But when he starts quoting Dylan Thomas, I almost stood up in the theater to pump my fist in the air. I wasn’t a huge fan of Thomas before this movie, but I’d read him before and liked him. But Caine’s recitation, which serves as a sort of refrain for the film, elevates this Thomas poem to another level.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” was originally published in 1951, and its repurposing for a movie in 2014 about the world in ~2070 is a bold choice. But I’m sure it was a careful one, and it paid huge dividends. As the movie evolves into a space odyssey with McConaughey, Hathaway, and two others setting out to find a new home planet for humanity, it’s this poem and Hans Zimmer’s score that keep the film grounded and focused.

Truly, it would have been difficult to pull a film of this scope off if not for the constant refocusing of the story by this phrase. Over the course of its 2 hour, 49 minute run time, Nolan takes us to imagined worlds of ice and water, through wormholes, moral dilemmas, several betrayals of trust, and even has time to make a robot named TARS the most charming character on screen.

Interstellar has so many plot points I could probably write over 10,000 words dissecting each one. But instead of doing that (you’re welcome), I’ll just talk instead about my favorite scene, which wonderfully brought to life something that has come up in many of my favorite works of science fiction.

(This scene is also sort of the crux of the movie, so if you’re worried about spoilers, stop reading now, but thanks for coming.)

After a preposterous series of lucky breaks/McConaughey being McConaughey, he ends up alone and deciding that the only way to save himself and humanity at the same time is to go through a black hole. The scientific data on the potential ramifications of this choice pretty much amounts to this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

But this is McConaughey, and he has to get back to his daughter, so my level of worry was in the negatives. I never for a second doubted that he’d be able to traverse time and space (literally) to get back to Murph. And save humanity in the process, but only if it was convenient to him. As it turns out, Murph was the key to saving humanity all along. When Cooper gets through the black hole, he arrives in a room, of sorts.

Still in his space suit, he glides around the room, from wall to wall, trying to figure out his surroundings. As he looks through the translucent walls, he realizes behind each wall is an iteration of Murph’s bedroom. He looks through and sees himself, at the moment he told her goodbye before leaving Earth, and tries to tell himself to stay. He pushes on various pieces of the wall, spilling four books on the floor whose titles spell out “S – T – A – Y”.

tesseract

Young Murph tries to show her father the ghost in the bookshelf is telling him to stay, but he doesn’t listen, just like he didn’t listen in the earlier scene that shows this exchange from the other side. Frustrated, Cooper glides to other parts of the cavernous room to try to send messages to Murph. With the help of an offscreen TARS, who Cooper is still communicating with in real time despite being in different dimensions, Coop figures out that this room is a tesseract.

As he calms down, Cooper realizes that he was the ghost in Murph’s room all along, and he was the one who showed them the coordinates in the dust. We now see this exchange play out again from the other side, and eventually we see Cooper give Murph crucial data from TARS on “The Gravity Equation” to help her “solve gravity”. (I’ve put those two things in quotes because I never understood what they meant throughout the film and I’m not sure if I’m just science deficient or they’re bullshit terms.)

This scene gives the audience the means by which Cooper saves humanity and more importantly reunites with Murph, in an odd ending scene where Murph is now an old woman on her deathbed, reuniting with her father in his early 40s. But I didn’t love this scene for how it wrapped up the plot. I loved it for how it represented time in four dimensions.

Nolan is known for scenes that so bend the mind they inspire countless internet diagrams and explainers. That last link is a great one that explains exactly what is happening in the tesseract scene. The room Cooper finds himself seems spacious, almost infinitely so. And to our understanding, it is. But he’s not moving through space when he glides from one room in the grid to the next, he’s moving through time. The space, in fact, is very small. He’s only ever in one cramped space: behind the bookshelf in Murph’s bedroom. The room Cooper is floating through seems infinite, because it is.

This was a wonderfully simple and gracefully executed introduction to thinking about time and higher dimensions. If there were a being who could exist in a tesseract not fixed on Murph’s bookshelf, but say, fixed on themselves, following the span of their life from birth to death and everything in between, what would that be like?

Would they still know sad times if they knew they were coming? Would they still make wrong decisions if the future existed to them as concretely as the present and past? Would they only focus on the most joyful moment of their life and never leave? Or would they be forced to return to times of sorrow in order to enjoy the joyful moments? Would this existence be more of a blessing or a curse?

I know Nolan’s goal wasn’t to explore these questions. But when he created a scene that could have, I really wanted him to. I’d love to see a sci-fi movie explore the questions above. For now, I’ll just have to keep rereading Slaughterhouse Five, whose alien race of Trafalmadorians explores these questions.

The movie’s conclusion hinges on Cooper performing everything he needs to in the tesseract, before being injected back into space to be picked up by a giant floating spaceship of the civilization he saved. If you’re still caught up in the “love conquers all” ethos of the film at this point, you’re probably on the verge of tears. I was interested to see a woman in her 90s greet her father in his 40s, but that was about it.

On the whole, the film has some amazing shots of planets, black holes, spaceships, and robots, on par with Gravity. The story is engaging for most of the film, and contains enough turns to scrape by all the way to its hefty run time. There are some good, melodramatic lines that only sound important because of McConaughey’s Texas drawl. If the movie had sought for a more philosophical exploration of the nature of time there might be more actually important lines to take from it.

But, as it stands, the best two lines of the movie were written in 1951:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Oscar Preview: Number 5

The Oscars are coming up in a couple weeks, so I thought I’d write about my top five movies from last year, one at a time. I didn’t see every movie last year, but I did see a lot, and many of them were quite good. I only saw six of the eight nominated for best picture, and only four of them are making my top five.

To give you an idea of my taste, I generally prefer movies with rich characters, a story that feels like something I haven’t seen before, and at least a couple solid one-liners. I prefer substance over flash, and smart writing over technical cinematography. That being said, there are times when flash is essential to the story being told and times when cinematography leaves my jaw hanging.

The exclusion of movies I didn’t see and the ones I didn’t think as highly of left me with a list of five movies united by the themes of power and violence. All of my reviews will touch on power and violence in some way, and at times I will compare some of the movies to each other in how they use power and violence to tell their story.

So, without further ado, my number 5 movie of 2014 was American Sniper.

AMERICAN SNIPER

Going into this movie, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I knew it was a Clint Eastwood directed biopic about Chris Kyle, the most prolific sniper in American history, who had recently (February 2013) been killed by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD at a gun range. So, needless to say, I expected Eastwood’s treatment of Kyle to be just short of worship, and that expectation was more or less met. What I didn’t expect was for to leave feeling as apolitical as I did.

Bradley Cooper’s performance is well wrought, he tries as much as he can to milk some emotional depth and breadth from a war hero who is now being elevated to larger-than-life status. In the battle scenes, Cooper’s face oscillates between strained and focused, portraying Kyle as a confident, but careful, diligent soldier. The violence in the film asks questions about war and what it does to those who fight it. After each battle sequence, in the lines of Cooper’s face, you start to see answers to those questions.

The opening scene is the most revealing example of this pattern. In this lengthy scene, punctuated by flashbacks, Kyle is forced to weigh the decision to shoot an Iraqi child holding a grenade in order to save a group of American soldiers on the street below. Once the scene concludes on the street, the camera switches to Cooper’s face, which expresses a jarring blend of disbelief, shock, and horror.

Much has been made of this movie, and of the message Eastwood sends with his treatment of Kyle. It seems like there are only two kinds of people who are talking about the film. Some praise Eastwood, some decry him. Both reactions say a lot more about the preconceived notions of the viewer going into the film than the film itself.

In the promotional run for the film, one group saw the subject was a deceased veteran with a record kill count, and that Clint Eastwood, of RNC chair-addressing fame, was the director. They thought surely, one and one would equal two and the film would be nothing but a glorification of war devoid of nuance. But, I think these people are wrong.

I also think the people who saw it and now believe Chris Kyle was one of the greatest American’s ever to live, on par if not greater than Martin Luther King, are wrong. I was going to link tweets for sources here, but I don’t want ignorant high schoolers to get more face time for their ignorance.

Regardless, those seem to be the two camps at either end of the spectrum of this polarizing film: an eye roll and a head shake from the left, and a crying fit and a fist shake from the right. And I think both groups are all too eager to see a movie based on a book co-written by the protagonist and take it as objective truth. I didn’t read the book before I saw the movie, but several friends of mine who did said Eastwood took several creative liberties with the source material.

When I saw the film, I didn’t leave in either of the aforementioned camps. More than what the film had to say politically, I was struck by Eastwood’s achievement as a filmmaker, and Cooper’s achievement in playing Chris Kyle.  Cooper portrays Kyle as a humble, devoted patriot, who only sought to serve his country the best way he knew how. He does not take outright political stances, he simply views himself as a soldier doing his duty. More than anything else, the movie wrestles with this idea: every time Kyle goes on tour he is doing so to save American lives, but in the process slowly destroys his own.

Sniper plays into the tropes common in other war films and novels: the brotherhood between soldiers, the feeling that the front lines feel more like home than civilian life, the otherworldly atmosphere of civilian life upon returning home. All of this happens, but subtly, in the background. Kyle himself is what remains the subject of the film, not the effects of war. He repeatedly denies any mental trauma upon his return home, even as his wife begs him to be present with her.

The movie rolls through several cycles of Kyle on tour getting called “Legend” by his comrades, Kyle at home not able to cope with the banality of civilian life, and back again to tour. It’s only toward the end of the film, when Kyle consults a mental health specialist at the VA, that he realizes he can continue his mission of saving his fellow soldiers by attending support groups for wounded veterans. He gets so involved in his new role that he starts taking afternoon and weekend trips with veterans to a private gun range as a form of group therapy. Several scenes of this are shown, and they are happy scenes, with Kyle returning to the happy-go-lucky cowboy he was before the war.

Although they were happy, I grew nervous at these scenes, because I knew they were the setting and circumstances of his death. When a scene starts to play with Kyle preparing to leave the house for the range, giving a prolonged goodbye to his wife and daughters, a lump in my throat began to swell. As Kyle gets in his truck and his wife closes the front door, you just know, because the way Eastwood’s camera lingers on her face, hovering briefly between the slight crack of the door and the door frame, you’re supposed to just know.

(Mild spoilers past this point.)

Eastwood tastefully elected not to recreate any part of what unfolded on the range that day, instead deciding to display the information about the events on a title card. I appreciated this kind omission, to spare the audience of even a glimpse of that scene. After that title card, music starts to play over footage from Chris Kyle’s actual funeral procession. It was at this point that the lump in my throat did that weird thing where you try to swallow it down but it goes up anyway and turns into tears that somehow bypassed your eyelids and are now on your cheek.

The hearse and motorcade travel across one of Texas’s many interstates, unassumingly at first. As the footage continues, spectators appear on the side of the road, brandishing American flags and signs of condolences for Kyle’s widow. The hearse passes under a footbridge lined with supporters, flags, and banners. Eventually, the procession arrives at Cowboys Stadium, an oddly gaudy location for the funeral of such a humble man, yet an oddly appropriate one for a man who was so greatly loved by his family, friends, and fellow citizens.

There are only a handful of movies that have ever made me cry, and I didn’t expect this to be one of them. Eastwood does well to build the emotion of the film to a slow boil, and relying on real footage was a wise choice that gave the images an authentic feel that avoided making the scene feel overwrought or sappy.

I’d like to imagine that this final scene was done well enough to melt the heart of even the most sour cynic. Hopefully they would only lob their criticism at Eastwood, that he was using this scene to manipulate the audience towards an unnecessarily strong sense of nationalism. I hope the crowd who thinks Kyle was somehow a self-aware part of the industrial-military complex, and not just a soldier simply doing what he thought was right according to his circumstances, is a small minority. Because while this interpretation may have been true in real life, I don’t think anyone could make that claim unless they knew Kyle intimately in real life. The movie itself presents a man who earnestly thought what he was only helping people, and fought to do so at the expense of his own deteriorating mental health.

It is much more interesting, to me, to consider the film as a meditation on the psyche of the soldier vs. the powers-that-be who actually bring a nation to war. The film’s closeness to present day amplifies the political leanings of the viewer, but one practicing an open mind can put the political implications of everything behind them and just witness a man who truly thought he was just doing the best he could with what he was given.

The very best pieces of war literature ask questions about the nature of war.  What does it do to a man when he’s forced to kill another man? What does it do to a man to constantly fear for his life? What is the true difference between us and our enemy? Do I actually believe in our cause, or do I just want to survive? Sniper grazes over these questions, and could have probed them more deeply, but that never seemed to be its aim.

Instead, the film functioned as a portrait of one man. A man was too humble to accept the “Legend” status his colleagues honored him with, and too proud to immediately seek help for his waning mental stability. He lived a life riddled with acts of violence, even though he was only trying to save lives. He was killed by a man he was trying to save. He lived not at either end of a spectrum, but at both ends of many spectrums, simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the movie about his life didn’t receive the same treatment. Political predispositions caused moviegoers to place the film into one of two extremes, but it deserved more than that. Kyle deserved more than that. American Sniper won’t go down as one of the best war movies of all time, but it was an interestingly personal one.

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The Year in Crime: ‘True Detective’, ‘Serial’, Ferguson, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

In January HBO premiered True Detective, a wonderful crime show that treated viewers on a number of levels. It brought two huge names (Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson) to the small screen, developed a complex mythology a few breadcrumbs at a time that had people scrambling to subreddits to discuss theories of whodunnit, and dazzled technically with a six minute tracking shot that started with controlled chaos and devolved into all-out mayhem. I was a couple weeks late to the party, but caught up via HBO GO and then watched the rest of the episodes as they premiered with a group of my friends every Sunday.

As much as we loved watching it, we loved quoting and discussing it throughout the week even more. There was just so much intriguing dialogue. Some friends were perplexed by Rust Cohle’s nihilism (more than once people were shushed for asking “What the fuck does that even mean?” in the middle of an episode), others were impressed with Marty Hart’s success juggling numerous side chicks and his flawed rationalization of his infidelity.

We were also intrigued with the show’s structure as Marty and Rust recounted their time as partners to two nameless detectives (for the first few episodes) years after the fact. There was also the constant question of whether or not what the camera was showing was objective reality. Rust admits to Marty that he’s prone to hallucinations, and the camera seems to reveal them at some points, such as in the following screenshot from episode 2, when Rust looks to the sky and sees a flock of birds form the spiral shape from the crime scenes they’ve examined.

This hints to viewers that everything shown by the camera may not be the whole truth. Later on, in episode five, when Marty and Rust invade the LeDoux meth lab, the story they’re telling via voice over in the future doesn’t match with the events on the screen. In this scene, the camera shows what viewers should interpret as the objective truth, and we understand later that Marty and Rust have to lie so Marty doesn’t face legal repercussions for executing a suspect in a fit of rage.

As the camera dances back and forth between subjective and objective lenses, the viewer is forced to constantly evaluate what images are being displayed, which is something I really enjoyed about the show. Every scene was engaging and every episode filled the six days before the next one with lively discussion. It felt like I was a detective myself, trying to figure out not only who was responsible for these murders, but also whether or not Marty and Rust’s lives would find any resolution by the season’s end.

Engaging with the show and trying to figure out what was going to happen was fun, because there was no pressure, because it was fiction. Achieving justice for the murder victims didn’t really matter, because there were no murder victims to begin with. This is one of the pleasures of fiction, particularly crime fiction. The stakes are high for the characters, but the viewer just gets to sit back and enjoy the cerebral challenge of figuring the show out, knowing that the showrunners will do that for them by the end anyway.

This fall, I was treated to a different crime entertainment experience when I started listening to Serial, a podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig. This was a relatively new experience for me, indulging into the world of true crime, a nonfiction exploration of an actual murder that actually happened fifteen years ago. Each week Sarah Koenig, a journalist, explored a new aspect of the case, guiding listeners along her process of research, theorizing, and fact checking.

It was the first podcast I’d ever listened to, but I found it fascinating. Even though I knew it was nonfiction, it still felt a lot like fiction, and not unlike True Detective. The cerebral challenge of trying to figure the case out before the showrunners did was almost identical. Each week I’d listen intently, scrutinizing Koenig’s words, trying to imagine possible details she’d glossed over or things that just didn’t add up. But, because I have nowhere near the journalistic experience that she has, I was never able to get ahead of her. Fortunately, I was far enough removed from the show that it still felt like fiction to me. I was barely seven years old when the events in question took place, and I’ve never even been to the city in which they take place, Baltimore. This distance, matched with the weekly hour-ish long episode with six days of discussion on the internet and with my friends in between, made Serial feel as fictitious as True Detective.

But it wasn’t. It was a real crime that really happened. Hae Min Lee was a real person who was strangled to death. And Adnan Sayed is a real person serving a life sentence in prison for a murder he may not have committed. So does it matter that I was treating it like fiction? That I trivialized the plights of these real people each week? After all, people much more qualified and in positions of much greater authority than me were already exploring the case. If Koenig had found a piece of hard evidence to exonerate Adnan, she would move forward with an appeals process accordingly, and I’d still just be along for the ride, right? Why should I feel guilty about treating this story like a piece of fiction? By and large, I didn’t.

Treating it like fiction and continuously reminding myself that it was real was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show. After listening to the penultimate episode, I was gearing up emotionally for the big reveal of the real killer in the finale before I realized that almost definitely wouldn’t happen. In real life, sometimes there is no big resolution at the end. Sometimes stories just sort of fizzle out. Serial did.

But another thing that intrigued me about the show was how some of the real life detectives went about creating their cases. In episode 8, “The Deal With Jay,” Koenig investigates why police didn’t further pursue the inconsistencies in the testimony of the key witness, Jay. Speaking with ex-Washington D.C. detective Jim Trainum, the following exchange occurs.

Trainum: The fact that we have an excellent witness– we’ve got somebody who is giving us the whole case right here, he’s broke it wide open for us, we don’t want to ruin him, you know? So how much do you want to push, how much do you want to create “bad evidence?”

Koenig: But, there’s no such thing–

Trainum: It’s an actual term, called “bad evidence.” Right. You don’t want to do something if it is going to go against your theory of the case.

So because Jay was their best witness (he testifies in detail how Adnan blackmailed him into helping him bury Hae’s body), the detectives only sought evidence that aligned with Jay’s testimony. The investigation wasn’t a search for the truth, it was a search for getting Jay’s testimony to convict someone. This makes sense from the detective’s perspective, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it less disheartening. I think we’d all like to imagine our detectives act the way we see in movies and TV shows. That they work tirelessly, inexhaustibly, against a nagging wife, a contentious partner, and a micromanaging boss to get their man. How many times have you seen a cop taken off a case, suspended, or fired for pursuing a lead that their superior just doesn’t think will turn anything up?

I think this is done mostly as a romantic notion, to entice the viewer into believing that character because no one else will. That’s certainly the dynamic True Detective wants to invoke. After the first few episodes, viewers were no longer convinced that Rust was himself part of the killings going on, so they then hitched themselves to his nihilistic, misunderstood genius wagon, even when he was off the police force and working out of a storage unit. When stories like this reach the inevitable conclusion that the misunderstood genius was correct, the viewer feels accomplished. (“Aha! I knew he was right! His boss and partner didn’t even believe him but I did! I’m the king of crime drama!”)

In Serial, this doesn’t really happen. Koenig tries to remain as objective as she can, exploring the case from multiple angles depending on the week. Listeners may have hitched themselves to a variety of wagons (Jay did it, Adnan did it, we don’t know who did it) but none of them led anywhere. In the end, Koenig’s investigation more or less ends where it started, with a case that’s complicated but inconclusive. Some viewers may remain convinced of their original stances, or may have switched and are now convinced of their new stances. Regardless, there are many people out there who left the show with their own version of the truth for this story.

This sounds like a whodunnit drama that’s left open-ended, which in a way is what Serial was. But, as I’m forced to constantly remind myself, Serial is real. It happened. It exists beyond internet fans who are #TeamJay or #TeamAdnan. Deciding one person was guilty at the beginning undoubtedly influenced your listening of each future episode, and only confirmed what you already thought to be true. Which is clearly no way to reach a safe conclusion, right? But, as discussed above, that’s normal procedure for detectives.

For real detectives, that is. Not our fictional heroes in True Detective. There’s a scene in the show at Rust’s apartment, when he and Marty are discussing pursuing a lead that Marty doesn’t think is supported by substantial evidence. Rust wants to press on, but pointing to the many books on Rust’s floor, Marty says:

You got a chapter in one of those books on jumping to conclusions? You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it. Prejudice yourself.

Marty is wary of bending the narrative to support the story they’ve already created. Because that would be a distortion of the truth. It’s comforting to think that detectives would behave this way, but if the interview from Serial reflects the process of detectives nationwide, I don’t think that’s the case. But to be fair to detectives, most people don’t act this way either. Most people take stories, true and fictional, and bend them to their own understanding.

One of the best professors I ever had once told our class “Everything you read is a story told to yourself, by yourself, in your own head, using your own voice.” At the time we were discussing who really writes a story, and most everyone in the class had taken the stance that an author, of course, writes a story. Then he said the above statement and I got angry. What the fuck does that mean? That doesn’t make any sense. Sure, it’s my voice, but it’s the author’s words and the words will never change, so what does it matter?

This particular instance has stuck with me, because it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when reading or viewing anything. Everything you come across in your life is filtered by you as you tell it to yourself. And you are not an unbiased storyteller. When reading fiction, this is in part what makes it great. Whether you’re reading Moby DickSlaughterhouse Five, or Things Fall Apart, you can make it your own because you’re telling it to yourself.

But when reading nonfiction, this is dangerous.

Especially when the nonfiction is as serious and horrifying as the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others. When I saw these events unfold this year, I struggled to make sense of everything. As soon as I saw a news story about an event, I’d see an article decrying that news outlet as spinning the story to attract more viewers. For every Facebook post that rallied to protest, I’d see one arguing the police officer was just doing his job.

When all I knew was that someone died, and all I wanted was to hear the facts of what happened, all I saw was two sides with a wide chasm between, each pointing the finger at the other as the problem with society. That such a tragic event could result in such a contentious war of words was heartbreaking to watch.

No one seemed interested in finding the truth, only in taking the facts of the case and showing how they supported the ideas about race, police brutality, and America that they already had. No one approached the issue as a learning experience, or an opportunity to achieve personal and societal growth. “No one” is probably too harsh. I’m sure there are many people who wanted to approach the events of Ferguson with an open mind and an empathetic heart. But the others were just too loud. People spewing vitriol on social media dominated the conversation because their voices were loudest.

There were a few who just wanted to have a civilized discussion about what was happening, but they were like stars in the night sky. Bright for a moment perhaps, but the landscape was still dominated by a dark void. It felt a lot like the darkness was winning, like the stars couldn’t possibly be enough light to reach any sort of progress. People were just too angry.

I don’t want this to sound like I condemn these people, or that I’m better than them. I’m not. I often get angry and combative, often about things that don’t matter. It’s human to get upset when things don’t seem to align to your understanding of the world. It’s difficult to look at things from another perspective. There’s nothing scarier than the possibility of realizing one of your fundamental beliefs about the fabric of society may not be exactly as you see it.

But taking a moment to calm down, to try to suspend your emotion from situations, and to ask someone else how they see things, or to investigate it yourself under a different set of assumptions, is the only way to try to find any objective truth. The first step to this is examining and identifying your own biases, and actively reminding yourself of those biases as you investigate something. Don’t operate under the assumption that everyone who disagrees with you is a stubborn fool incapable of learning to see things in a new light. Operate under the assumption that everyone who disagrees with you is a person with emotions who can be reasoned with, and try to understand their perspective.

Maybe this sounds corny. Maybe it’s impossible for people to show more empathy for one another, especially in contentious situations. But maybe if more people try to combat their biases there will be even more lights. Maybe, the light will win.

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Two Tweets on a Sunday

Yesterday I read a couple of tweets. Well, I probably read a few hundred tweets, but I want to talk about these two. The first one upset me. I wouldn’t quite say pissed me off, but it upset me. It wasn’t so much the tweet as it was the link to the list (I hesitate to call it an article) I read in the tweet. The tweet was from Neal Brennan, a hilarious comedian and writer who co-created Chappelle’s Show. His tweets are usually funny and sometimes unexpectedly insightful. Overall, he’s a good follow. Here’s the tweet:

The link was to a list titled “Films Stupid People Think Are Clever” from Esquire, which is not a publication I frequent. I rolled my eyes at the headline, but read the list anyway, intrigued by Brennan’s mention of Shawshank, Fight Club, and Matrix in his tweet. Read the list if you like, but to recap: it lists Fight Club, Inception, American Beauty, The Departed, The Dark Knight, The Matrix, The Life Aquatic, and The Shawshank Redemption as films that stupid people think are clever. This list contains six films I love and two I haven’t seen (American Beauty and The Life Aquatic). Of the six I love, I thought all six were remarkably clever. Now, I understand I’m not a film student or a movie critic, so perhaps this is an example of my lack of expertise with the medium. Regardless, I was pretty upset that this snobby British website had just called me stupid to my face for having the audacity to genuinely enjoy six films.

I was upset for a while, but what can you do? Leave an angry comment? I scrolled to the bottom of the page and found that many readers did leave comments, and I was not alone in feeling insulted by the authors. Comment sections, in general, are the worst area for productive dialogue on the internet, so instead of leaving my two cents, I returned to my Twitter timeline. I read another tweet that made me pause, but this time in a good way. It was from Joyce Carol Oates, a living American treasure and author to some of my favorite short stories, including possibly my favorite, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Here’s the tweet:

Side note: Oates is an amazing, borderline mind-blowing follow on Twitter. I recommend everyone follow her immediately, as well as read her extensive body of work. She’s 76 years old and has produced widely published work since the 1960s. I’d feel comfortable unofficially crowning her the most prolific Tweeter for her age bracket (75+). Her tweets are often about cats, writing, and movies, in addition to the other random thoughts that she thinks and tweets. So basically, she’s like any other tweeter. However, the immediately noticeable difference is that her random thoughts are a thousand times more profound than mine. She probably has at least five tweets a day that would each take me a month to come up with if all I did that month was drink coffee, read philosophy textbooks, and try to think of clever things. But, anyway, let’s talk about this one.

Her tweet before that was about her trouble updating Adobe flash player, so this tweet didn’t exist as part of broader commentary by Oates, it just stood for itself. It doesn’t represent a new idea, but it phrases the idea in a wonderfully succinct way.

The idea is the constant struggle everyone feels between the desire to belong and the desire to stand out. We’re aware that with anything there’s a vague majority of people who share a certain opinion, set of interests, or do certain things. While we all understand that to a degree, we respond to the awareness of this majority in different ways. And it varies based on the majority in question. Some people will embrace the fact that their interests align to the majority, content to belong and have their interests validated by sheer numbers. Others will acknowledge the same majority and intentionally find interests that contradict the norm, sometimes purely for the sake of contradiction. I suppose to these people the thought of aligning to the majority makes them shudder, terrified they may lose their sense of individualism in a sea of people too eerily similar to one another.

I’d say I’ve spent times on both sides of this coin, and I think everyone has to a degree. There was a phase for me late in high school and early in college when I was overeager to find ways to establish myself as an individual. Ways to show my friends that while I liked them, I wasn’t exactly like them. I had my own interests. I was my own person.

There was also a sense among my friends to establish ourselves as a smaller subset from the norm, a desire to break from the herd, but not all the way to the level of individuals. In high school, this took the form of my friends and I exploring movies like Fight Club and Donnie Darko and listening to bands like Dr. Dog, Bright Eyes, and Passion Pit. We thought we were cool, or trendy, or something. We weren’t quite sure what to call it, and we weren’t looking for a name for it. But really all we were trying to be was different.

Which, of course, we weren’t really. But we were high schoolers, and we had just started reaching that angsty teen phase where you want to think you’re the only one who has realized the world is bullshit, pop music sucks, and everyone (especially your parents) is stupid. So we found things that let us delude ourselves that we were different, or special. Things that seemed unpopular, smart, and cultured. If I had had Twitter in high school or frequented entertainment websites like I do now, I would have quickly realized all of the things I thought I was unique in liking were widely loved by their own cult audiences, who loudly let the rest of the world know about it on the internet.

But I didn’t have Twitter. So I didn’t know that. So, for at least a few years, Fight Club felt like it was mine. And that felt nice. I was able to walk around thinking I knew something my peers didn’t, that I had experienced something they hadn’t, and had for a moment seen the world in a way in which they were yet to see it. For a while, Fight Club wasn’t just a movie, it was my movie.

If someone had asked me at the time about Fight Club, especially about how they didn’t get the ending, or whether or not Tyler Durden was actually real, I probably would have responded by rolling my eyes and saying something along the lines of “You just don’t get it.” In fact, this probably happened and I don’t remember it. Or I choose not to remember it. But regardless, I would have responded like that and it would have felt good to feel superior to that person in that moment. I’d be a genius for a fleeting moment: someone who had seen and understood, rather than seen and been left confused. For all intents and purposes, I would’ve responded like a pretentious little prick. I would’ve responded like the authors of that Esquire list.

Making someone feel inferior does not make you better than them. But it’s incredibly easy to convince yourself that it does. Especially when you’re defending something you feel is yours. Which, when framed in that way, makes pretentiousness seem harmless. But it’s not. Pretentiousness is not a victimless attitude. If you really love something and feel that it’s yours, you should want to do nothing but share it until everyone feels the way you feel about it. But, if everyone feels the way you feel about something, it ceases to be yours, and that was part of why you loved it in the first place. There’s the rub. To paraphrase Oates: we know we are individuals, but the things that make up our individuality are shared, and therefore also somehow part of the norm.

The other side of the coin is doing what the authors of that Esquire list did. It uses the same attitude but applies it from the other side of enjoying something. Instead of liking something and refusing to share it with others, these authors actively sought out things other people liked and called them stupid for it, without much substance to back up their claim. They found movies people often identify with when looking to separate from mainstream culture: the mainstream of the sidestream, if you will. Then once they found them, they called them stupid and just left. They didn’t follow it with a list of movies that they think are clever, they just called millions of people stupid and closed shop for the day. Doing this with movies that fall in the mainstream of the sidestream is a particularly cruel act, because it targets the very people who think they’re different for liking these movies. If their list had included only Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan films, I probably would have chuckled and went along with my day. But in a way I’m glad they didn’t. Their list made me a target for their insults. But I’m glad I wasn’t the deliverer of their insults.

I’m mature enough to read a list like this and brush it off, but there are a lot of people who likely took the words to heart, and felt suddenly stupid just for genuinely enjoying a few movies. I definitely would have taken these words to heart in high school, dismayed that the things I thought defined me as someone different had instead made me a stupid moviegoer. But even though I say that, I definitely would have also made people feel stupid for not getting the cleverness of the things I felt belonged to me.

Wanting to find things that feel like they belong to you is not a bad impulse, I don’t think. But taking things that feel like yours and belittling others for trying to understand them, or actively searching for things others feel belong to them and belittling them, are certainly bad impulses.

I think Regina Spektor perhaps best laid out the idealized version of this process. Spektor, I now feel compelled to say, was an artist I thought only I loved in high school. I was able to share my love for her music with a few friends in college with mixed results; some were already big fans of hers, some left the room when I played her music, and others made a puzzled face but bobbed their heads. She’s also on the short list of women I would marry instantly, no questions asked, at any time. Anyway, I think the last verse of her song “On the Radio” sums up the best way to like things without being pretentious and without making others feel stupid for liking the things they like. Here it is:

“No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again”

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