What I’m Into: September 2015

20110925-011821This month I came through an existential crisis and reaffirmed my trust in the goodness of life and an ultimate purpose to human existence. I also watched a lot of movies about outer space, because apparently that’s what I’m into in September 2015.

            Movies

            A few of the lesser films I saw this month (there were a lot, okay?): Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Road Warrior, 2012 (blame this on my brother-in-law), Home, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with Stephen Fry), A Tale of Two Cities (1989), Arabesque (with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Week End (Godard’s worst movie? hopefully?), Bigger than Life (a fine performance from James Mason), The Haunting (1963), Never Let Me Go.

            Now for the better ones:

            Kingsman: The Secret Service. Somehow I saw the censored version of this one. A few days later I watched the original cut and walked away with a less positive feeling. The violence is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it features an excellent performance by Colin Firth as a Hagrid-type father-figure shepherding a young man into a secret spy organization. The narrative combines elements of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter. ***1/2

            Captain Phillips. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Paul Greengrass (who also directed the second and third Bourne movie), this movie about Somali pirates hijacking a merchant vessel features one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in years. ***1/2

            Saving Mr. Banks. More fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, respectively. Colin Farrell appears somewhat randomly in flashbacks. ***1/2

            The Theory of Everything. A Stephen Hawking biopic that tells you almost nothing about Hawking’s ideas, choosing to focus on his disastrous marital life. Excellent performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for the role).

            Westworld (1973). Initially I rated this one only three stars. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Michael Crichton writes and directs this pre-Jurassic Park story about a Wild West theme park staffed with robots who turn and kill the human guests. But the highlight of the movie is Yul Brynner as a gun-toting, slow-walking, murderous robot cowboy—the Terminator in spurs and a Stetson. ***1/2… actually, no, make that **** stars

            Stalag 17. One of the classic prisoner-of-war dramas, about a group of men being held prisoner by the Nazis and the one man (William Holden) who is suspected by his fellow soldiers of being an informant. Great script and several unforgettable moments. ****

            Inside Llewyn Davis. Come for the folk music, stay for a sweet story about a cat and a vivid evocation of winter 1960 in New York. ***

            The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s no secret that I love everything Orson Welles has ever done. This noir film about a man framed for murder occasionally stretches credulity (how could anyone be so gullible?), but features possibly the first use of a “hall of mirrors” climax in cinema. ***1/2

            The Stranger (1945). Another great Welles noir, featuring the first use of concentration camp footage in a motion picture and a dizzying denouement atop a clock tower. ***1/2

            Carrie (1976). The movie that helped launch John Travolta and Sissy Spacek into stardom, this is one of those films that everyone knows the plot of, even if they’ve never seen it. Still, I was surprised by how effectively it made me feel for Carrie in the moments just before she wreaked her unholy vengeance. ***

            They Live! John Carpenter’s quasi-Gnostic, pre-Matrix parable about a man (Roddy Piper, sporting a mullet and fresh out of bubblegum) who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden alien society all around him. Simple, sometimes troubling, but always engrossing. ***1/2

            Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (special edition): the highlight of this late western is the Bob Dylan soundtrack. (Dylan himself appears in an understated role as a curly-headed young man). ***1/2

            The Secret Garden (1949). Great black-and-white cinematography and set design elevate this story about three children who discover a secret garden. Directed by Fred Wilcox (who would go on to direct Forbidden Planet), this movie is a wonder to look at. ***1/2

            Howl’s Moving Castle. Stunningly original, visually brilliant, with a story that is convoluted (in the grand tradition of most Miyazaki films) but always compelling. ****

            2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved this movie. I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so boring. It’s contemplative. It’s a prayer. It’s humanity in search of the meaning of our own existence. ****

            Lawrence of Arabia. Several finely staged setpieces, some unforgettable narrative twists, and the most epic cinematography ever committed to film. Worth it just to see Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness together on screen.

            Before Midnight. The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series deconstructs the romance of the previous movies, showing us a Jesse and Celine who are nine years older and beginning to wonder if their relationship is really worth it. Includes one of the most realistically written and acted arguments in any movie. ****

……....Fanny and Alexander. Bergman released this movie in a theatrical edition and a TV version for Denmark television that was five hours long. I started watching the shorter version and became so engrossed I knew I had to watch all of it. Having now finished part one of the TV series, I can already say it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, like a Tolstoy novel on screen.

            TV Series
veronica

            Black Mirror. A modern-day spin on The Twilight Zone, but focused on the perils of technology. The first, unforgettable episode recently made the news when Lord Ashcroft claimed that David Cameron had had sexual relations with a pig at Oxford, which happens to be almost the exact plot of that episode.

            Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Continuing my trek through this decades-in-the-making TV series, I finished Season 6 with “Dumb Witness” and began Season 7 with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The series has adapted Christie with admirable consistency (and at this point might be my favorite show, ever).

            Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon called this teen mystery drama the TV version of Harry Potter, and it’s true. This show is everything I need right now.

            Books

            Dombey and Son. Almost a hundred pages into this one. It has some of Dickens’ best prose, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Dombey has a son (and possibly a daughter?), but apart from that I have no clue what’s going on.

            Spooky Texas (S. E. Schlosser). Now that I’m home, I have access to several collections of southwestern folklore. This one compiles several of the best-known legends of Texas.

            We Were Liars (E. Lockhart, 2014). This is a gorgeous book and everyone must read it.

            The Missing Girl (Norma Fox Mazer). I read this book about five girls and the man who decides to kidnap one of them in one sitting.

            Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (H. G. Bissinger). A powerful and damning indictment of Texas sports culture, and possibly Texas in general.

            Jane Austen’s England (Roy and Lesley Adkins). A breezy but informative handbook for writers.

            The God of Hope and the End of the World (John Polkinghorne). A book that helped me through a profound crisis.

            Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Flannery! FLANNERY!!!

            First Term at Malory Towers (Enid Blyton). The first in a series of books about a girls’ boarding school. I LOVE this book. The relationships are all beautifully, convincingly rendered and the girls’ mischievous antics are reminiscent of the Weasley twins, among others.

            What about you? What did you read or see this month?

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What Made the Harry Potter Books So Successful?

Severus-Snape-The-Half-Blood-Prince-severus-snape-7012501-1920-1080It’s been 10 years this summer since I read the first six Harry Potter books for the first time. I’ve spent much of the last 10 years reading literary criticism, folklore, mythology and famous works of literature that were an acknowledged influence on J. K. Rowling’s opus in the hopes of answering the question, “What made these books so successful?” So naturally at this point I have a lot of opinions, and today I share them with you. Continue reading

“I Give You… Potter!” Seven Great Moments in the Harry Potter Books

Harry-Potter-and-the-Philosopher-s-Stone-emma-watson-25871706-1280-544As unlikely as it seems now, I largely missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon when it began blowing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Continue reading

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing Skirts the Line Between Comedy and Tragedy

much adoThis is the first post in a new series discussing my 40 favorite films.

 

Groups can so easily turn against a single person, as I learned at the end of my freshman year in college 10 years ago this month.

Skyler* and I had met on the first morning of orientation, and for much of the year we were inseparable. Our friends said we were like twins. We listened to the same obscure bands, treated Shakespeare like a religious text, and, ultimately, fell in love with the same girl, Mary Ann*.

This was never going to end happily, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare probably realizes. Throughout his career, from his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona to a late romance, The Winter’s Tale, the prolific playwright wove stories about inseparable friends whose friendships are ultimately torn apart by jealousy and mistrust. Continue reading

If Charles Dickens Wrote Contemporary Christian Music: or, God and the Grotesque

pip1_2117564b
My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”

One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.

“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”

It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).

I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.

Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.

Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.

At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).

I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.

We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:

We’ve been invited to come

And believe the unbelievable

Receive the inconceivable

And see beyond our wildest imaginations

So Lord, we come

Oh, Lord we come…

With great expectations

Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”

Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.

We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.

Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.

Which brings me to this man:

johnny-cash2

In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.

Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:

When I was just a baby

My mamma told me, “Son

Always be a good boy

Don’t ever play with guns”

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die…

 And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.

This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:

walktheline

The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.

The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.

And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.

 

 

“If You’re Feeling Sinister”: A Look Back

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastianIn 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.

Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.

It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.

Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.

Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.

Fox in the snow

Where do you go

To find something you can eat?

Cause the word out on the street is

You are starving

If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.

Just prior to the recording of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Stuart had moved into a bachelor flat above a church. There he worked in the parish hall and sang in the choir in between writing songs for the album.

“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recalls in a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.

Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”

In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”

However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.

 

Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.

Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.

Buffy, Rwanda, and the Kingdom of Elsia

Xander zeppo

One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).

It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.

And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.

And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.

And then this happened:

 

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”

 

So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.