I Am Sam or if you prefer, i am sam, is a movie that came out in 2001. I feel that is the first thing to point out because there are many aspects of this film that feel decades old. I remember when this movie came out. My interest in it was for the soundtrack, which features a bunch of covers of Beatles songs. I was a huge fan (still am) of The Beatles at that point I thought if the soundtrack was that cool, the movie wouldn’t be too bad either.
My young self was wrong. Well, my adult self is telling my young self that I was wrong. I was a young 13 when this movie was released. I was not part of the discourse, but am aware of the jokes made at the expense of Sean Penn’s performance in Tropic Thunder. I can’t imagine that the portrayal of a man with mental disabilities went over well with everyone. I didn’t with me. It was distracting and boarded on distasteful? Perhaps it was just the opening, which is so jarring and in your face, that it comes across as comedy. Sean Penn eventually settles down and so does the story: He is father to a girl of 7. She is rapidly approaching his own mental abilities. Therefore, the court is trying to take her away.
During this process we see that Sam is actually a very loving and caring dad, albeit to a 7 year old. I don’t think the movie ever really sells that Sam should have custody of her as much as he, as a human, should be allowed see his daughter. The movie attempts to carry multiple torches about what it means to be a parent and caregiver and I like those aspects. It’s universal and these questions have only gotten more complicated in the age of smart phones.
We are introduced to Sam’s lawyer, a should-not-be-funny scenery chewing Michelle Pfeiffer. Her performance is loud. She must of felt she had to go toe to toe with Penn, when really, a subtle performance would have gone further. She is a high-powered career woman who takes the case pro-bono. Also filling out the cast is some of Sam’s buddies who share similar conditions. One is obsessed with movies. Sam is obsessed with The Beatles, hence all the covers on the soundtrack. The movie never really delivers on that though, using it for metaphors and ways that Sam can understand what is happening around him.
It’s fine. It is all fine. Except the direction.
I can time travel back to 2001 and I can see how this type of cinematography might seem cutting edge. The camera CONSTANTLY zooming. I mean CONSTANTLY. These are the incredibly shitty style of zooms where we go tight on a character for emphasis. Usually this happens mid-action. I think George Lucas patented this in the Star Wars prequels and it is deployed full force in this COURT ROOM DRAMA. It is beyond distracting and, honestly, made me nearly turn it off. Nothing is more irritating to me. In El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez cut costs by filming a scene and zooming in on it so that he got two shots out of one. This is a 20 million dollar movie. I don’t think they needed to do that. It is a directorial choice and a baffling one. It does not give any sort of realism to the story
I should not overshadow how much the camera moves. I mean, this is like old-school Paul Greengrass moving. The whole movie looks like an episode of Oz. Also, the color pallet is dark blue. Darker blue than even a Christopher Nolan movie.
Ultimately, performances are what once floated the movie and I think now, along with the direction, sinks it. It would be more gripping and touching if they had cast an actor that actually has the mental disabilities that Sean Penn pretends to have.
I am clearly not caught up with the times. What you will see is a slight theme: I took a very long break from movies. Sort of like when I went to college and had no interest in extracurricular activities after I over worked myself in high school. I burned myself out on movies in college. Whether I was buying movies, really collecting, on Blu-ray or going to the theater at least twice a week, it was a convenient time to take a break. I also became a dad. This was just before the advent and proliferation of streaming services, so being a dad meant holding your baby and reading books. So, I read quite a few books.
But, I’m back baby. Back.
And in being back, I’m catching up on a number of movies that I missed. Two of which I watched recently and found the tenuous connections interesting: Jojo Rabbit and Red Tails.
Jojo Rabbit, nominated for Best Picture and won best adapted screenplay, tells the story of a brainwashed Hitler youth whose imaginary friend is Hitler. I am shocked that this thing not only was nominated for best picture, but picked up an Academy Award. Forgive me, but this movie is pretty horribly unfunny. There are a few good sight gags and Sam Rockwell, who plays a sort of burnt out Nazi captain, provided the bulk of my enjoyment. If you don’t think that Hitler dancing in the woods next to a boy is funny, let me tell you how long this movie can feel. The whole Hitler as an imaginary friend thing mostly drops out the second half of the movie and it becomes a pretty route WWII drama about the evils of war.
Red Tails, nominated for NOTHING, tells the heroic tale of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII. It was a passion project of George Lucas. He put up over 30 million of his own money to make sure that it got made and distributed. He even did the reshoots, making this the first non-Star Wars thing he directed in decades. And no one cared. More or less panned when it came out, it was criticized for, (checks notes) unrealistic characters and clichés.
Now, let me tell you about Jojo Rabbit. A boy, whose father is away at war, must grapple with the struggles of growing up, including, interacting with girls. What if I told you that the girl is a Jewish girl that is hidden in his house? Huh, (checks notes) sounds pretty, “unrealistic and cliché.” A few of the squabbles with Red Tails is that it doesn’t tackle the big issues of race during WWII. I’m not sure if you can fault a movie for not handling something that it doesn’t set out to do. Is Bambi anti-hunting? Shouldn’t it had pushed that agenda a bit harder?
Red Tails was doomed to fail from the start. George Lucas, in a rather candid way, told Jon Stewart in a The Daily Show interview that the studios wouldn’t make the movie because it had an all-Black cast. This was before Black Panther. Thus why he had to put up so much of his own money. Red Tails is a highly competent action film that puts black WWII action at the front and center; hard pressed to think of other movies that do that. It presents the heroes in a way where they can be heroes. This, unlike say, Princess and the Frog where the first Black Disney princess sings songs about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and the importance of hard work. There is racism in Red Tails, but it is handled in a gentle way, letting white folks off easy and casting only one devil.
Jojo Rabbit makes light of the Nazis, but never really criticizes what they are doing. It’s a comedy, dark and absurd. Which is fine. That was the intent, but where was the dissent? If Red Tails can’t exist without asking why it couldn’t be more and do more, why should Jojo Rabbit exist at all? It tells us nothing new. It adds nothing to the discussion. It is a pretentious wink and nod and smile and “I can’t believe we are doing this.”
Red Tails isn’t perfect. It is what it is, but god forbid we judge it as such, no, no! Jojo Rabbit is a bad movie, but makes us think it is profound by being dark and edgy. We giggle like school children
I did not think that I would want to write about The Rules of Attraction. I’m sure I am adding nothing to the discourse, but I can do what I want.
I always have this image in my mind that a movie will come along that will blow people’s minds and the collective of critics will simultaneously write headlines that simply say, “holy shit.”
This has never happened. It never will either and if it did, it would likely be for some Marvel trash.
I, dear reader, did say “holy shit” multiple times watching The Rules of Attraction. Not because it is the best movie I have ever seen, but one of the most audacious ones. I can’t imagine that it mattered much in 2002. Looking at the current box art for it, it appears that the studio is attempting to sell this as a romantic comedy. Oh, buddy.
Point blank: The Rules of Attraction would not be made today. No chance in hell.
I’d give a quick rundown of the plot if it mattered. I don’t think it does. This film is mood. There were plenty of points where I questioned if what was happening was really happening and then I realized that it didn’t matter. Nothing does. Except that you strap yourself in for the ride.
Style is bleeding out of this film. The opening bit is something like the long intros of Godfather or the Deer Hunter, where you know you’re watching the movie, but nothing is really HAPPENING as much as we are getting INTRODUCED. Then the film jumps back several months to when all the characters at the party might be first interacting. The film wants to mess with your perception of relationships just as much as it wants to mess with the perception of what film can do. Stuff is cut and chopped. Characters give internal monologues. There is travelogue in the second half that is filmed on a home video camera. That bit ended up being my favorite of the film because it was every fantasy you could want out of an overseas trip condensed into a five minute bit. It was wild.
This cast is great too. I can bet that most people would be turned off from James Van Der Beek here, but I think he is perfect. His performance is stilted and stiff, not unlike someone going through an emotional crisis. Shannyn Sossomon is such a great early -00s actress that should be given more to do today. She is the manic-pixie-dream girl that isn’t. Clifton Collins Junior gives a fantastic, weird run as town drug dealer. It is about as memorable as Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights.
The Rules of Attraction might have been made in 2002, but is distinctly 90s. The book was written in the 80s, but the movie has all the trappings of 90s films. There is an underlying crime plot, because there has to be. A lot of drugs are dealt and consumed. Taken in the context of when the film was released, it is a response to the late-90s sex comedies like American Pie. TROA posits itself as the REAL look at sex and all the messiness of…attraction. This involves a rape as well as varying fantasies and casual sex with strangers. The rape happens in like the first ten minutes and was truly shocking. It isn’t violent. This isn’t Irreversible, but it does feel incredibly shocking, especially through 2021 lenses.
It’s midway through March now. I’ve been meaning to write this post since March 1st, but didn’t feel overly compelled to do so. I went on an adventure last month, a task, if you will. I challenged myself to watch a movie a day. This was a long sought endeavor of mine. I had once been an over consumer of movies, going at least twice a week to the theater, but, I had a kid and a family and I dropped off. Dropping off lead to a general distaste for popular and new movies. Literally nothing looked good to me. Nothing stood out. I’ve had a running list in my brain since 2011 of movies that I missed that I should watch, so, what better time than February 2021 to start on that journey?
There was no rhythm to how I watched these movies and I, ultimately, ended up watching much more than 28, thanks to a week long winter storm and some long Saturdays. I suppose for historical purposes, I’ll put at least a word of comment about each. Here is the list:
Hostiles – Did not like as much as I would have expected! It’s a modern-revisionist western! But, alas, I didn’t. It ain’t no Bone Tomahawk. Shame – This, I’m shocked to admit, was my first Steve McQueen film. It won’t be my last. The Trial of Chicago 7 – The most alright movie of the year. I actually quite enjoyed it, but thought the ending was TOO cheesy. Somewhere – god help me this is the second best Sofia Coppola film. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – I briefly wrote about this in my last post. I really like Bunuel. Doctor Sleep – I am in love with the fact that this got made. I do not care about Stephen King. I did not care about this film. But throw Mike Flannagan, who I think is great, and a budget, at a sequel to both The Shining movie and book? I’m there. It’s overstuffed though. The Bling Ring – I find this preferable to the overrated Lost in Translation, but it ain’t no Spring Breakers. Cool Hand Luke – Okay! Jackass 3.5 – Not quite just cut footage like 2.5, kind of more of a tour documentary, I still laughed. Good Time – It sure was! Mid90s – Yeah! Okay! I liked it. The Reznor/Ross score is the best part about it. It Comes At Night – BOY HOWDY. This is a movie! The Invisible Man (2020) – Also a movie! Booksmart – This movie is aggressively positive and I dig that. Hell House LLC – Better than I thought it would be! An Affair to Remember – Pretty much two completely disparate movies in one. I dug the first half more. Machete Kills – I forgot this existed. I was pleased to remember. The Curse of La Llorona – Despite being rated R, this is straight up a PG-13 horror film from 2002. Lookout Darkness Falls! The House that Jack Built – I wanted to love this movie. Maybe one day I will. Judas and the Black Messiah – Every year you get Oscar movies like this where the performances are so good you kind of forget the movie. Lockout – Dictionary definition of B-movie. From Luc Besson, OF COURSE. Little Women – Like a hair too long but very, very great. Literally perfectly cast. The Fits – A movie I had no idea about except they talked about it on Filmspotting when I used to listen. It was good! The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – As a Beatles knower, this was mostly redundant, but nice to see the footage in HD. Maps to the Stars – Maybe the best movie I watched in February. Polytechnique – It was good. I didn’t know this happened. Nomadland – I was a big fan of the book and while books and movies can differ, I did not like the movie AS MUCH. Still good. Read the book. Jacob’s Ladder – I’m not sure what I thought this movie was going to be, but it wasn’t want I thought. Still alright, though. The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Probs the second best movie I watched all month. A Boy Named Charlie Brown – I love the Peanuts and this is the first of the full length movies I’ve seen. Delightful. Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies – Pretty good surface (skin) level doc on the history of movies. Sure, it’s about nudity, but it’s really about movies. And America. Hush – Eh. The Beguiled (2017) – It’s aight. Overlord – Nah. Maybe when I was in college. The Descendants – Okay, I did not want to watch this, but it was leaving HBO MAX and I was like, okay. I’m so very glad that I did. What a darkly funny movie. Dare I say I loved it? Truly shocked. Election – You know what else is shocking? What you used to be able to get away with in movies in the 90s. Take me back. Blade Runner 2049 – If the universe dictated that we MUST have a Blade Runner sequel, at least this is what we got. 20th Century Women – This is a very enjoyable movie! The Truman Show – I slept on this one. Wow. What a dang movie. Never mind, this might be the best movie I watched all month. The Shape of Water – Great, but still hilarious THIS won best picture. THIS was Del Toro’s big win. Ha.
What I learned after this experience is that I did not miss much in the last decade of film. In fact, I think I like popular movies even less. Or my tastes have truly changed. Of all the movies I watched, maybe only a handful did I think were worth my while. And yet, I’ll probably try and do this again in April. Needed a break.
Nothing ever changes. I watched two films this past weekend, Trial of the Chicago 7 and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
I do not think that these two make a great double feature, but they share themes that are still relevant in today’s culture. One is set in the 1960s, the other filmed during that time. Chicago 7 is a very typical libs versus the established right. It was a great premise and set up and ends with a rousing Spielberigan flourish. I enjoyed myself. Discreet Charm is definitely a different style film, a satire, a send-up, whatever you want to call it. It is told through a series of vignettes that show how vapid and deplorable the rich are. It’s a movie that could be made today and I’m sure it would do great and have a lot of meaning. Chicago 7 is kind of saying the same thing, that the system is broken, but sometimes it’s so broken you can sneak away.
This feels like the same conversations we’ve been having all year. All last five years. All of Trump’s presidency. All of Bush’s too. We seem to have skipped Obama’s a bit. Regardless, it’s all exhausting. Movies like this exist and you wish that the same fights weren’t still happening. But they are. You watch Chicago 7 and you want that to have been the end of a corrupt justice system, but it hasn’t done a thing. Discreet Charm should have sent up the rich so hard that they took a hard look in the mirror, but they didn’t. No one does. Look at the French Revolution. I feel prescribed to fight the same battles against the same ideas for the rest of my life. We are born and subscribed into a war of attrition, trench warfare, of the mind. We’re going to forever be a 51/49% country from here on out. No side can mess up enough for any real change. I cease to believe in it. One party wants to move forward by talking and complaining only. The other wants a foot firmly in the past and to keep things low key, unless there is a way that they can make money or serve their special interests.
There is going to continue to be billionaires. You can’t tax that away, they’ll weasel out. There will be a trillionaire soon. I look forward to it. Nothing matters and when you think it does it’s because you have fallen into the thinking that none of this is completely cyclical. To quote True Detective, Time is a Flat Circle. I think we would be scared of real change. Has there ever been a moment in life that has been closer to life altering than the pandemic? We have a clean slate to redo everything. We could rethink the work week. We could rethink debt. We could do anything we want because the status quo has been destroyed and all anyone wants is for life to be back to normal. How fun does that sound? What do we mean by normal? To go to restaurants? Concerts? Gather in public sans mask? That’s coming, that’ll always be coming back because whether you realize it or not, that is a billion dollar industry that is just taking a nap.
It’s frustrating because people are calling for change, I guess, but it’s just in TicToks and Tweets. Nothing changes. Nothing happens. Everyone will go back to being pissed and scrolling through their life on their phone. I suppose art is supposed to alleviate that issue. To make you cease the fear of death or the unknown. It seems to just remind us that we haven’t really travelled anywhere or gotten any better. We haven’t done anything worth being happy about in ages and that when you look back at everything, those breakthroughs, perhaps a moon landing, were anomalies, exceptions to the rule that nothing changes. Occasionally, things just happen and we accept them and life will never be the same. Smartphones. COVID. What’s next? The confirmation of aliens? Will it matter?
I love lists. Truly I do. I think about lists before I go to sleep at night,. I think about lists when I’m at work. I think about lists when I should be meditating in the morning. Lists rule my life. When people attempt to get a wayward life together, they typically make lists. I have told people to do as much in the fit of a panic or a bad choice. Make a list. Make a list and put everything on the list. Then start crossing off the list. Perhaps I am not in love with lists as much as I think. I’m in love with crossing things OFF lists. There is a dopamine hit each time I do. There was a point in my life that I felt overwhelmed and I put walk out of office on a list of things to do. I did it. I crossed it off.
Lists are not only good for keeping track of things to do, they are great at keeping track of things you have. Which is turn, is really just more for you to do. Lists not only dominate my day, often writing down at least three things before I get to work in the morning, it rules my free time too. I have a list of the video games that I have purchased that I have not played yet. That list is less daunting than it used to be as I used my shelter-in-place time to write a novel and play a shit ton of video games. Seeing the long list, stretching generations of consoles, reminded me that I should stop just buying stuff unless I really want to play it. I feel like I’ve wasted a good minute of my life “beating” a game that I quickly found out I have little to no interest in. The way my mind works, however compulsive asit is, I will finish something, strike it off the list (dopamine hit) and then immediately put something new on the list. It is a vicious cycle and one that I’m working desperately to stop.
As bad as it was for games, it is a full-blown addition for books. I have lists upon lists for books. I have my Goodreads To-Read list. My Goodreads Read List. I have my Goodreads yearly reading challenge list. I have my library list. My digital library list. I have what is on my Kindle App. My iBook app. I have an Amazon wish list of books that I want. Actually, I have two. One for the “Great on Kindle” selections that give you money back on your purchases. I have my yearly “to-read” list. That list is usually the one that I think about the most. I had made a vow, years ago, that I would read every book I owned. I came within ONE BOOK of doing this in college. I remember the book, a huge tome on The Beatles, probably the sixth book of its kind that I had read. I did not need to know anything else about The Beatles (as I look at my to-read list, I have three DIFFERENT Beatles books I want to read with a fourth forever floating in my brain that I know I will buy some day) I had read plenty and the book’s over 700 page size did not jive with my college work load. But it was my LAST BOOK. I tried. I tried to get through it twenty pages at a time. I couldn’t do it. Not because the book was bad, I would later finish it and find it to be one of the best on the Beatles subject, but mostly my lack of interest and perhaps, deep down, a bit of fear of what would happen when I truly had nothing to read.
I got married shortly after college and never accomplished my goal of reading everything that I own. I inherited all of my wife’s books. Fresh ideas and adventures on my shelves, but also, a one-time gigantic increase to the backlog. So, in order to attempt to tackle this task and fulfill an increasingly stupid demand I put on myself, I made a list each year of twenty books, typically ten fiction and ten non-fiction that I would HAVE to read from our shelves. Very quickly I ran out of books that I bought and was slogging through books my wife purchased. As much as our book interests overlap, especially compared to any other medium, when I made the 2021 list, I realized that I had reached a wall on interest overlap. I was going to have to dive into scholarly books about teaching to reach my goal. I did not exactly what to do that.
So I pulled back and thought about what I was doing.
I had effectively read every book that I owned. Me personally. The goal, originally, if I dig back into the recesses of my brain, was to curb purchasing until I could read some of my backlog. Well, that is a something I can cross off my list. When 2021 started, I had one book I purchased that I had not read that I intended to. It was a book I got from the free bin at the library, a paperback science book from the 1970s about waves. Yup. I wanted to read that. It sounded like a great summer book. An attempt had been made to read it summer 2020, but was pushed aside as I dove headfirst into Murakami. I also, just before the turn of the year, completely cleaned out my Kindle library. I was done. I had read everything.
And how did I feel? “Not great, Bob.”
I didn’t feel anything. I thought that looking at that blank Kindle list and eyeballing my physical shelves and seeing no book I own unturned would leave me with a sort of pleasure, of accomplishment. I could finally work on the library backlog. I could read more of my wife’s books and TRULY read everything in the house (never mind my son’s books.) But what did I do?
I bought more books.
As the time of writing, I’m pretty sure I’ve purchased over ten books since January 1. There were generous Kindle sales and generous family members at the holidays that allowed this to happen. I’ve also checked out three books from the library that I am working through, but this isn’t to say that I didn’t learn anything, because I did!
I’m doing this all more purposefully now. I recognize my weakness in lists. I recognize that the goal is the cross off and not the experience. That hasn’t stopped me from making lists. I have the list of books on the physical shelves that I should read ready to be scratched off. I have a mental list going of books I should read in February. I typically read very diverse, but try extra hard to keep mostly black voices that month in honor of Black History Month. I have a list going.
I’m writing trying to wrap this up. This blog post checking off a list in my brain. I’m trying to make it seem like the point of this was that I got better, but actually, it’s a daily struggle to NOT MAKE LISTS. To not whittle my life down to things I can cross off. Lists lack purpose and lack a reason to enjoy things. The old adage and overused saying is that it is not about the ending, but the journey. I’m trying to remember that the journey is the purpose and to enjoy it is to be present and living purposeful. I don’t know if lists and living purposefully can overlap for me, but I’m trying.
This year has brought a number of things. A lot of those things are not worth mentioning, except perhaps in the deepest of diaries where, perhaps, future humans can begin to understand why everyone decided to post themselves dancing on the internet. That is neither here nor there and I am not condoning whatever release that might have given each individual person either participating or spectating. I for one, chose the route of invest in the garden and spend time outside. In addition though, we as a family spent a good deal of time watching Guy’s Grocery Games on Food Network. This became a nightly hobby, taking in one or two episodes before going to bed, uncertain what the next day would hold. GGG was cathartic in that it was fun and followed a format. Additionally, the last minute of the show was the closest, at the time, we had to a modern Supermarket Sweep and I loved it.
We watched countless hours of GGG on the Food Network App on our Fire Stick. The Food Network app is awful in the way that all streaming apps are awful. When the show would cut to commercial, we would get loaded a package of about five commercials. These would often repeat. We were subjected to our internet companies slew of “HOME PREMIERE MOVIES” including such footnotes in history as Emma., The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Gretel and Hansel. Additionally, almost as soon as the pandemic hit, there was a healthy portion of cut together commercials from companies acknowledging that, yes, people were dying, and yes, you should stay home, and yes, we were all in this together. This grossly jaded me. In all the post-apocalyptic fiction I had read up until that point, I never thought that advertisers would have quicker responses than some governments, and yet they did! They responded en masse. I remember a Hyundai commercial that was b-roll footage of cars driving and the copy was something like, “we’ll be here when it’s back to normal.” Thank God I’ll still be able to buy a car!
The worst offense of them all was the Charmin bears commercial. The Charmin bears are already a bit suspect, walking the line between winks and nods to bathroom humor, and downright gross characterizations of bathroom problems. So lucky us when we get a SOMBER commercial starring our favorite toilet paper bears packed in front of a TV with worried looks on their faces. Yes, this was all of us and I get it, but to be REMINDED that we are in fact all poop bears that are worriedly crowding around a TV was too much. It felt fake. It felt like something that couldn’t possibly exist. It felt like something from the back half of a mid-season SNL episode. Why must I be pandered to in the first place by advertising? Were there budgets that had to be spent so that is why we were subjective to so much reminder of our misery? It hasn’t gotten any better, this years holiday commercials seem hell bent on reminding us that people are dying. Can’t wait for the super bowl!
In a year that jaded a lot of us, the advertisers were one of the things that hit me the hardest. Each time I saw a new commercial that directly addressed what was going on, I began to wonder if they have these things in the can, ready and waiting to tie to the next national tragedy. It broke me in ways that I didn’t think I could break. But now, now I look back fondly on these commercials the way that people look back on the 1950s. These commercials were made in response to something and it was SOMETHING that we were all banding together to fight. Before it all broke down again. There was a glimmer that we would emerge stronger and the advertisers capitalized on that and our fear. God bless them.
Nine years ago this month I read 1Q84, my first experience with the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I remember seeing it advertised on Amazon, hilariously in retrospect, as “this year’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” That is a time and place blurb, I tell ya.
Regardless, I was intrigued. At the time, something I find surprising now, I had not ever heard of Murakami. No one had whispered into my ear happy things and handed me a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. No, this dense, 900 page tome was to be my introduction into his world. This was not a time in my life where I had an abundance of money and shelling out the cash for a book that I wasn’t sure the basic premise of wasn’t for me. The library didn’t have it and since my son had just been born, it would have been best to have it digitally. In a sort of reverse-the-point, I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about Kindle ebook piracy. I had never once considered downloading a book illegally, but now that the bug of an idea had burrowed itself into my brain, I got on my torrent site of choice and downloaded the tiny file of 1Q84. Sorry, Haruki, but I have bought many of your books since so…
I don’t think I want to recap 1Q84 because – A.) I don’t remember. B.) It is a sprawling novel and C.) this blog post is about feeling. I remember some flashes of the plot, but those details feel like Polaroids in my mind. Snapshots of a life lived elsewhere. When I finished the book, my son asleep in my arms. I set my Kindle down and just thought. This is something I rarely do. There is, admittedly, not much thought about each book I finish, more the carnal urge to immediately pick up another one. But I paused. And I thought. I thought a bit more. Then decided that I hated it.
I thought it was a waste of time.
I picked my Kindle back up and now tossed it to a soft surface in a sort of mock-disgust. What was that 900-page piece of shit I just wasted my time on? Then, however, the realization that I did like it! It was terrible, but I also thought it was amazing; juggling two extreme thoughts in my brain.
What was the verdict? I loved it. I truly did. I had devoured it and I wanted more. I wanted to live there. I–and I mean it–had found comfort in his words. In the rhythm. In his cadence. There was something there. I dug a little deeper and found that Haruki Murakami, who did not speak great English when he began to write, would write his novels in English, then translate them to Japanese. That was a perfect explanation for his Lost Generation-esk workman prose, mixed with some truly elegant sentences. At the time I made a note to read more Murakami, but maybe once I put some time between me and 1Q84.
A few years passed and a collection of his first two novels were released. This was the first time they were available in English. They were also the first two in the loosely related “Rat series.” I knew none of this at the time. I picked up, Wind/Pinball the name of the collection and read it in just about one sitting. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was living in this grime-y, but homey, and welcoming Japan. One of the images from the collection that sticks with me to this day, and I would later find out is a trope of Murakami’s, was the protagonist going to a Spring baseball game, sitting in the lawn behind outfield and drinking beer in the sun. It sounded wonderfully lazy and carefree, the exact type of thing and person I want to envision myself to be and an activity to do that I know I’ll never. When I finished that collection I ripped through a couple more of his novels. I was in love now. Joining the millions of college students and discerning adults in their admiration of the master.
Then I took a break. This was a practical break. My library did not have the next book I wanted to read. I am a completionist. I want to do ALL OF EVERYTHING I AM INTERESTED IN. God forbid I ever get into something like Star Trek. I can’t just read Murakami books when the feeling strikes, no, I need to read ALL OF THE MURAKAMI BOOKS. My library was missing the next book published and I wanted to read them in order of publication. I am also very strict and silly about self-imposed rules. So, I just didn’t read any more of his books. There are plenty of other books out there to read.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles changed my reading life. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like it and I adore it. It felt magical when I got it at Half-Price Books, a place where there are never Murakami books and one day I’m in there and there is a perfect condition paperback copy. I had to buy it. Once again, there is no need to recap what that book is about, but I strive in life to feel like I did when reading that book. I would RUSH home from work to read the next page. I could not wait to jump right back into that world.
Then, another break.
Enter quarantine at the beginning of the year and it is time. It is time to conquer all of Murakami because I need an escape. So I do. Over the last seven or eight months, I’ve read or listened to all of his books. Fiction. Non-fiction. The one graphic novel, The Strange Library. I’m done. And I’m sad. Why do I feel so cursed to do things like this? Why did I need to blow a possible lifetime of Murakami in one year? Well, if there was ever going to be a year that I needed to leave and spend it somewhere else and in someone else’s shoes, it was this one. I blazed through something like 15 of his books. It was interesting reading and seeing a lot of the things I found most interesting about 1Q84 are actually tropes in all of his novels, so I might have picked the ultimate book to start with.
The point I’m taking a very long time to get at is that I will never learn. My brain wants not just a piece of something but the whole thing and this is the first time that I feel genuinely sad about it. There is no Murakami left to read. I know I can go back an read again, but that isn’t the same and I am very bad at doing that. He has a new collection coming out in April, but I’ve read most of those stories already because they are mostly from the New Yorker.
I think about this often. My idols will die and while they will have the legacies that most idols do, conveniently timed holiday releases of “unearthed material”, they won’t produce new work. I can’t bring back Roger Ebert. I can read every review he’s ever written but I can’t bring him back. I’ve read all of Murakami and there was no prize at the end, except the exceptional journey and a pain in my gut that it’s over. I’ve done this with Cormac McCarthy too, but oddly, wisely, holding onto the Border trilogy and refusing to read it like a literature life preserver. I’ve read all the Kurt Vonnegut. I should stop. I really should. Earlier this year, one of my favorite current authors released a new book and I read it in one day! Why?? She might not release another for YEARS. I suppose it leads me to write. If my favorite authors can’t, I might as well.
It feels like this should wrap up with something I’ve learned in my journeys with Haruki, but I wouldn’t know what to zero in on. He’s opened and expanded my mind. I now readily read much more Asian literature, shout out to Han Kang another favorite. Overall though, I’ve gleaned a feeling and a warmth I’ll never forget. And now, because I am who I am, a ranking of Murakami’s fiction work.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Wild Sheep Chase
South of the Border West of the Sun
The Elephant Vanishes
Kafka on the Shore
After the Quake
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
My favorite director is Paul Thomas Anderson. He is the auteur of some of my favorite films, including my absolute favorite, Boogie Nights. Or he was. Or he is. I don’t know and yet I wrestle with the idea daily. It’s of small consequence, yes, but I find the desire to declare a favorite and best a good mental check in for where I am in life.
In high school, as I was diving deeper into my love of film, it was Tarantino and George Romero that laid claim as my favorites. In April 2007 my favorite film at the time, Grindhouse, was released. I mark that as one of my favorite film going experiences and will defend Death Proof to this day. But will claim none of that as favorites anymore. My love of PTA hasn’t diminished, but at the moment, am finding two other directors speaking more directly to me. Can favorites change? Of course, but more interestingly, what is it saying about my current tastes?
It’s a three way tie at the top, PTA is still up there, but he is being met and surpassed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch.
Soderbergh has been a year-long fascination for me. I’ve been exploring his catalogue and taking deep dives into his lesser known films. We’ve all seen the Oceans films, but what about his first breakthrough, sex, lies, and videotape? I watched that and it instantly became one of my favorites. Or his crime film, The Underneath, a film so forgotten the easiest way to watch it is as a BONUS FEATURE on the Criterion release of his classic coming-of-age film, King of the Hill. I’ve mentioned before that not every Soderbergh film is great, but every single one of them is interesting. I have a chart in a notebook that ranks them:
Soder-GREAT Soder-GOOD Soder-MESS
Going around film Twitter a couple of months ago was a tweet pointing out how woke Soderbergh has been and for how long. The dude made High Flying Bird, a film about the power that NBA players can have and how exploitative the league is. That felt relevant in early 2019 and even more so now. High Flying Bird was placed in the Soder-GOOD column. But before that he made Contagion maybe the most prescient movie in recent history (that is a Soder-GREAT for those who are keeping score.) He can rattle off filmed stage plays, Grey’s Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine while also knocking out audience pleasers like Magic Mike (Soder-GOOD.)
I haven’t had a chance to watch all of his films yet, which speaks both to how many movies he makes and how much I am savoring his catalogue. All of this does not mean that I find anything PTA does any less interesting, but I find myself enjoying what Soderbergh is doing at the moment. He isn’t resting in what he knows, once again, not that PTA is, but is constantly exploring and finding interesting way to tell stories. His psychological-horror film Unsane was shot on iPhones (Soder-GOOD). I find drawn to someone who is playing with the medium, but a part of me also feels drawn to him because he isn’t out there getting Academy Award nominations at every turn. For whatever reason, my brain has always been more attracted to the interesting mess than the perfect four star and I think that is coming to a head with my overwhelming love for everything Soderbergh directs.
Then there is David Lynch. Maybe I’m behind the times. I felt like I should have discovered Lynch in college, but it wasn’t until about six or seven years ago when I binged the original Twin Peaks show that I fell head over heels for him. I love his aesthetic. I love his point of view. I love his tone. I, uh, basically love everything about him. I get him and in turn, while not possible, I feel like his films get ME (Do I sound like a crazy person?)
I went through the hits of his filmography shortly after finishing Twin Peaks.Mulholland Drive blew my mind and is now one of my favorite films. Blue Velvet equally so, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I read his quasi-memoir Room to Dream that I explored his lesser known films and realized how great he truly is.
If you were to ask me on any given day what my favorite Lynch film is, I’d likely say Mulholland Drive or Fire Walk with Me, but there are definitely days where it is The Straight Story. The weirdest of Lynch’s films, because it is the most normal, The Straight Story follows the adventure of an old man crossing the country on a lawn mower to make peace with his dying brother. Some of the Lynchian hallmarks are present, including the humanity that is present in all of his films. What most people don’t understand about Lynch, often distracted by his “weirdness” is that he loves people and his films overflow with his love for people. He finds his love for people in the mundane. He uses the darkness of his films to shine a light on how lovely mundane human nature is. The Straight Story only has implied darkness and an abundance of joy. The joy is found through sorrow, but it is there. Thinking about it brings a smile to my face. This goes for The Elephant Man as well, a film that shows how wonderful humanity can be by exploring some of its darkness.
Lynch like Soderbergh have risen in the ranks of favorites because they don’t rest on any one thing, they can be compared to Kubrick in that regard, bringing something new and interesting to each film. PTA is this as well and why he remains high on my list.
It’s clear my tastes change and lately my interest in mass films has waned significantly. I don’t care about big blockbusters anymore and would much rather take a deep dive into an artistic failure than something widely considered great. If I had the rest of my life to only watch PTA, Lynch, and Soderbergh, I think I’d be ok.
(I understand that I’m talking about three white dudes.)
In life there are men’s men and women’s women, right? Those that adhere so closely to their gender codes that they stand on a mountain top and decree what is right and wrong amongst our gender based lives.
There is also such a thing as a film fan’s film fan and that person is Roger Ebert.
I wish I had known Roger. Truly. I wished every time I happened across Siskel and Ebert, the widely syndicated movie talk show, that I knew the frumpy one. He looked like me. He was excited about movies the way I was. Roger is a green beacon at the end of a film pier, one that I reach out to when my film fuel is drained.
I’m going through a drought. Maybe it has something to do with the global pandemic or a general disdain for what I’m seeing advertised to me. In the meantime, while I let my engines cool, I’ve picked up numerous Roger Ebert books. I’ve read nearly all of them and this year alone I’ve plowed through, A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length, Four Star Reviews, Awake in the Dark, Ebert Bigger Little Movie Glossary, and most recently, Questions for the Movie Answer Man.
Questions for the Movie Answer Man draws from his syndicated 90s column of the same name. Readers wrote in asking and musing with Roger over just about anything. These were the quaint days before IMDb. These were the days before blu-rays and streaming. There are questions about the price of VHS tapes and a very long section about whether Blockbuster (!) will carry the letterboxed version of Pulp Fiction. There are multiple entries about Pulp Fiction. One reader wrote in asking Roger what the heck Alicia Silverstone was saying in Clueless. The reader kept hearing her say ”SF” and couldn’t figure out what the acronym was. Roger kindly explains that she is saying, “as if.”
As entertaining as the questions are, it is Roger’s responses that make me smile and give the decades old questions warmth. He will slyly and playfully put someone down that obviously is incorrect, never in a fashion that is rude, but in a way that makes everyone laugh for the sake of laughter. He is quick to defend his tastes and interests, but in a thoughtful way, or in the best cases, a way in which you wouldn’t expect. One reader wrote in asking about subliminal messages in Disney films. There is supposedly a scene in The Lion King where some dust spells S-E-X in the air when Simba and Nala share a night together (this is very obviously a sex scene, but I digress.) The letter reports that their four year old had pointed it out, Roger points out that it says more that four year old knew the word AND that it was “bad” than if it was in the movie at all.
Most shockingly, and honestly I’m not sure why I am shocked, is that most of these questions still feel relevant. Sure, they ware dealing with films that are thirty years old and performances long forgotten, but within the questions we see age old issues. How should we deal with race in Gone With the Wind? Accusations of the liberal Hollywood double standard. Accusations of critical bias. Condemnation of awful Hollywood blockbuster dreck.
There is cold comfort that my feelings about some things align with feelings of film fans in the mid-90s. I laugh at the (undue) hate of Twister as nothing more than a special effects bonanza. That movie is a brilliant masterpiece compared to some of the absolute shit today. At least it had a point of view, set pieces, and you could understand the action.
There is always nostalgia for another time. There are always brilliant classics, there is always dreck. Ebert thought Speed was fantastic despite some flaws in logic. I wonder what he’d think of the MCU? I can’t imagine he would be the biggest fan, recognizing it for what it is, commercials with lore attached. I don’t want to fall down that rabbit hole though.
Roger Ebert loved film for film. Everyone is always saying that. And it’s true. He could take the art house with the schlock. He could do it all and write about it all.
I would have never imagined I would have loved a nearly 30 year old book as much as I did, but it was refreshing like stale water in the desert. Life changes, life moves on, but the movies live forever. They ebb, they flow, but Lilian Gish is still Lillian Gish if you watch her films. How you watch them as changed, but she hasn’t. Movies have changed, but Roger hasn’t. He’s been gone too long and every book I read I miss him more and wish that I could figure out how he felt about life today, but I think I know. I think he put himself out there enough to where I can figure it all out. A map to the movies. It’s all there, if you want it.