Monday, July 10, 2017

Baby Driver, Nostalgia within the Digital Age

Baby Driver is the latest from comedy director Edgar Wright, widely known for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movies. The latest, an action movie, stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, Lily James as the love interest, Kevin Spacey as crime boss, and Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Eliza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx as a collection of baddies hired on to pull off an assortment of heists. Baby is the reluctant and very skilled getaway driver, paying off a debt to Spacey's character. Baby also happens to always have earbuds in, listening to a wide spectrum of jams to distract himself from his tinnitus, providing a bangin' soundtrack and central component of the movie. Baby Driver isn't revolutionizing the heist/car action movie genre from a narrative standpoint but the generally positive reviews are instead geared more towards the car chase choreography, use of music, and quippy performances by the stacked cast.

Baby's vast and varied music collection is provided through a variety of clickwheel iPods which he yanks from the various cars he lifts, each coming with a handful of musical gems. In our smart phone world, the clickwheel iPods are now outdated, reminiscent of the decade past. The iPod revolutionized the way we listen to music and then, just as quickly, became relics of yesteryear. For me, the aughts (2000-2009) encapsulated my high school and college years and thus were formative to my music sensibilities, primarily delivered through the mode of a handheld device with the sole purpose of bringing music to my ears. The clickwheel iPod produces a nostalgia to my thirty year old self. The clickwheel iPod is my vinyl.

Ansel Elgort, driving with earbuds
With Baby having earbuds in the majority of the movie, the movie has music playing nearly from start to finish. While Baby has a medical impetus to keep the music going, he fulfills my late high school mantra to "soundtrack my life," wherein I would throw in my earbuds walking between classes, while driving to and from school, or while hanging out in my room. The way Baby uses music, covering every moment, is a reflection of the revolutionary iPod. While previously, Walkmans and Discmans created a continual escape for music geeks, the iPod had the battery life and music range to keep me entrenched for most of my waking hours.

Perhaps I'm fighting my age, but is feeling nostalgic for a time era less than twenty years prior a more recent phenomenon? It's reminiscent of Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood's use of music. The 2014 movie was filmed over a twelve year period and showcased music from the years leading up to its release date. I remember when Gotye's Somebody I Used to Know played in the movie and, within a matter of three years, I had totally forgotten the song existed and yet was totally taken back in time, albeit a short trip back.

Baby Driver's use of the clickwheel iPod doesn't seem intent on taking its viewers back to a previous age as much as to signify a peculiarity on Baby's part that is both strange and yet relatable. Regardless, my nostalgia radar went off. Perhaps my experience of watching the movie differs than others as it relates to nostalgia, specifically for those in different age demographics. Do others feel the same way when they encounter products, devices, or methods in movies based distinctly in the past? Is the use of nostalgic artifacts a lazy form of audience connection in any way? Is nostalgia for the recent past another sign of the digital age, time moving at an accelerated pace? Just a few questions to chew on. Baby Driver was good; go see it if you like light, fast-moving, music heavy action movies.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Few Quotes from "H is for Hawk"

I just finished Helen Macdonald's 2014 memoir H is for Hawk. I realize I'm a little behind in reading and writing about it but I found a few quotes especially meaningful. Macdonald is a falconer living in England. She writes about raising and training a goshawk, her father's recent death, and the life and writing of author and fellow falconer, T.H. White.

The book is reflective, informative, and unique. And I wanted to write down a few quotes.

The first refers to Macdonald's conclusion that she cannot live as her goshawk. In her grieving process, she wishes to seclude herself, find insight and comfort, and vicariously live out the life of her hawk, Mabel:
“In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all” (p. 275).
The second quote is less central to the thesis of the memoir but rather focuses more so on how we perceive the world and, in particular, our perception of our historical roots as it relates to our given geographical place and home. Given our political climate, her words ring especially true:
“Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history” (p. 265).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Listening to a Few African & African-American Stories

Over the last few weeks, I've read Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, watched season one of Dear White People on Netflix, and started listening to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime via audiobook. To use David Dark's term, my attention collection has inadvertently landed on stories told by those with an African-American and African background and hold race, among other themes, near the center of their individual works. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of The Danger of a Single Story in her excellent TED Talk and though not intentionally planned out on my end, I'm happy when I have the space and time to avoid said danger in my media consumption, even if it doesn't happen as much as I would like and I'm certainly not coming close to getting the complete collective story (as if that is a thing and as though that could be accomplished).

All that said, I've enjoyed these media slices and I thought I would share what about them I enjoyed along with any (minor) critiques.

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Info: Young adult fiction novel; released 2017
What I enjoyed: This teen novel hits on a number of current day issues for Starr, the teenage protagonist: code switching between her wealthy, white-majority high school and her rundown neighborhood and home, police violence against people of color, and finding ways to survive and maintain one's dignity amidst unfair disadvantages. These are all issues that need to be discussed and highlighted. What the book does so well is maintain its sense of perspective from Starr, the teenager experiencing and processing all of these issues. Her thought processes flow smoothly from making sure her Jordans aren't dirty to dealing with trauma to figuring out how to handle a white boyfriend among her black community.
My hesitations: True to the genre and also a part of what makes the book great is the perspective of the protagonist. As an adult reading a teenager's thought process, there can be moments of frustration, wishing Starr would have a certain conversation or simply be more sure of herself. Basically, inherent in the genre is dealing with the angst and unease of being a teenager and that's not my favorite part of said genre.

Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Info: Fiction novel, released 2016
What I enjoyed: The book could easily be classified as a collection of short-stories. Fourteen stories from seven generations following two Ghanian sisters' lines from the 1700's until present day, traversing continents, gender and sexuality, various forms of slavery and oppression, a range of ways of coping, among a plethora of other topics. The scope is wide though each story felt personal and interconnected.
My hesitations: Less a complaint as much as extra work, the amount of characters was extraordinary and required frequent referencing of the family line graph at the beginning of the book. I would recommend reading in close succession, allowing oneself to get into a rhythm of reading each of the stories.

Title: Dear White People
Creator: Justin Simeon
Info: Netflix original series; season 1 released April, 2017
What I enjoyed: I'm not going to try to give thoughts without the context of the 2014 movie of the same name, director, and plot line. Dear White People is set on a fictional Ivy League college campus, with a black-face party instigating the course of events and primarily follows the various black students throughout the school year. Each episode is told from a different students perspective, allowing for more nuanced character development than the movie and to allow for a variety of perspectives to be heard on the various topics being discussed. This was a good move. The show is also funnier, to my recollection of the movie. The script is quick and engaging. Most or all of the plot lines could be pulled from many/any college campus; the show is relevant.
My hesitations: The show can be a little on the nose. There's a scene where Sam (central protagonist?) and her first-year roommate Coco (another central character) voice how they choose to live as black women in a white majority campus and society. The spoken lines are true and it's important to recognize their differences but the scene also seems to feel like two talking heads making their individual points rather than two embodied human beings/characters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions in an Atlantic group discussion on the show, Dear White People is primarily concerned with racism and black people are of secondary concern. Still, the revised format of the series (each episode from a different character) helps in this department and I look forward to future seasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shedding My Whiteness

I wrote this blog earlier this spring (specifically, March), mostly trying to process a handful of thoughts, books, movies, and experiences I'd been fortunate to have the months prior. I delayed in posting, feeling more passionate than thoughtful. After a quick re-read and minor edits, here it is.

Like many Christian colleges, the community within which I live and work has a white majority and the resulting culture reflects that in many ways. There's clearly work to be done in terms of creating a more just and equitable racial and ethnic environment that seeks not only higher representation of people of color, but more inclusive operating at every level. I say this as I also know that we at Messiah are striving for racial reconciliation* in real and meaningful ways, for our faculty, staff, and student body. As manifestation of this and among a variety of other factors, this year alone, I've been impacted by multiple book groups (Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy & Jim Wallis's America's Original Sin), a lecture by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a service trip to D.C. with Messiah students involving a workshop on race and a visit to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, and personal professional development reading Messiah's professor/alum Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. So while not perfect, I have appreciated the ability to grow in my understanding of issues of race in this environment.

Each August, the good folks in the Intercultural Office lead an exercise for the in-training RAs, having them take five-minutes to write their story. Where they're from, the traditions their family has, their hometown values and routines. Everyone writes their story out on a piece of paper and posts them on a wall, creating a collage of miniature life-stories. While it's always nice to recognize the nuances and variety of backgrounds, the exercise gets at the idea that we all have a particular story. This is oftentimes especially helpful for majority students as it's easy to fall into the mindset that, if you're from the suburbs and have limited experience in diverse settings, that your story is normal. Heck, I've been through this exercise five times and I always have to fight the urge to recognize that while my story may be a common one in the room, I cannot categorize it as normal. My path has given me a particular set of formative experiences, impactful people, and exposure to ideas that has left me with a particular set of bias, worldview, and perspective.

This leads me back to what I mean when I say "shedding my whiteness." When I check "white" on any form, I do so reluctantly but honestly, knowing that "white" is a messy conglomeration of certain European immigrants and descendants that have made their home here in the US from which I am a result. And, as I continue to learn, "white" is and almost always has been in the position of oppressor, and those with a light skin tone have always been welcomed into the "white" club with the perks of having certain advantages and avoiding other disadvantages. Broadly speaking, avoiding slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration. And then there are countless more specific examples of oppression (e.g. redlining or microaggressions). So while my direct family line may or may not have been directly involved in many or any of the systematic forms of oppression, I can't totally shed the group from which I come because my family line has always been able to check the "white" option on the forms. Hopefully my actions and words work towards a more equitable present and future.

One major take-away that I had from Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen, is the imperative to the white church to not trust our guts on issues of race. In looking back at our country's history, there was a solid majority of nice, white Christians who were trusting their instincts that slavery and segregation laws were moral. Just like I have to check myself every time I consider my story as normal, I cannot trust my instincts because there's no way I've unlearned the bias that hundreds of years of oppression has ingrained in the culture in which I grew up. So, whenever there's a racially charged incident nationally or more locally, I need to first recognize that I have a bias on the event and then I need to listen to others who come from perspectives other than mine. Or, as another example, the first half** of the movie Get Out speaks brilliantly to a black guy's experience in a predominantly white (and liberal!) environment. Time after time, the protagonist endures the well-intentioned stereotyped conversational assaults from his white girlfriend's family and friends all the while having to justify and prove that the impact is exclusionary in nature.

So I am trying shed my whiteness. This takes intentionality. And work that doesn't immediately further my own standing as a person doesn't always feel rewarding. But I think it is rewarding in the long run and it's something that is in line with the kingdom of God and a more inclusive life really does benefit both myself and others. I'm looking for the next step. Or maybe just trying to be faithful in my current operating roles as husband, friend, residence director, consumer of culture, etc. In any case, I'm trying to have open eyes and ears to the world around me.


*I know the term "reconciliation" is a misnomer as there's no amiable racial relations to revert back to in this country/culture. Is there an alternative phrasing that's preferred?
**The latter half of the movie also obviously speaks to issues of race, just in a more direct and horrific way.

--

As reference, these are all great:
Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism 
Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Jim Wallis's book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America
I haven't read Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas's work but if her lecture was any indication of her books, she's worth investigating
The movie Get Out fits within the horror/thriller genre so beware... but it is excellent, even to someone who doesn't naturally enjoy the genre
The National Museum of African-American History & Culture in D.C.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Five Take-Aways from the Introvert Book

The book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, released in 2012. It's been on my to-read list for a while after popping up on my Goodreads feed over the last few years. While the book could be less long-winded, a common critique I have of many non-fiction books, there's a lot of great materials in there. As someone who is an introvert myself and work with many introverts in an extrovert culture and, more specifically,  an extrovert field (college residence life), I identified with a lot of the material and was glad to name many of my experiences and felt responses. It's high time to own and champion my introversion.

I'm having trouble stringing a lot of the material into a coherent single thesis so I'm typing up five take-aways that especially stuck with me. I'll give a quote and a few thoughts on how I've seen it play out in my life or those around me.

--

1. Leadership
"Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited form the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motive them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words" (p. 57).
I've consistently received feedback from the student leaders with whom I work that I excel at listening. It feels passive and it's not a skill you see touted on many resumes. But I'm learning that it's a specific strength of mine which I want to own and develop in addition to encouraging within the students and colleague peers of mine with whom I work. My form of leadership may differ from the culture's ideal; that's alright with me.

2. Ideal work & learning method
"... the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts ... introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation" (p. 74).
As education and work cultures trend towards group work and open work spaces, the limiting aspects are aplenty for introverts. I enjoy connecting with my colleagues on a daily basis and feel like I get in a rut if by myself all day. But, I often find myself unable to be productive (or as productive) when working alongside others. There's too much happening. I'm over-stimulated. Likewise, later on in this particular chapter, brainstorming as a way of idea-generation is identified as a poor method of creativity and coming up with a way to think anew. I've found this to be true in so many meetings. Feedback and ideas are requested and I don't have developed ideas to contribute. I wish I had time to concentrate deliberately by myself. I'm just as guilty of this in leading others. Note to self: give team-members time to think of ideas on their own, with space to do so.

3. Appropriately stimulating environments
"Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality - neither overstimulating nor understimulating, neither boring nor anxiety-making" (p. 124). 
I've long known I had specific preferences for environment, work or otherwise. Lamp over fluorescent lighting, music that engages but doesn't distract, pleasant or no smell. I've also recently added a kinetic sandbox and essential oil diffuser to my office. Few people prefer chaotic environments, but boy do I love an office that is calming or a living room where the throw pillows are in their place. Introverts are more easily stimulated (read: distracted and worn out) than others and I'm happy to eliminate unnecessary distractions.

4. Making decisions
"... extroverted clients are more likely to be highly reward-sensitive, while the introverts are more likely to pay attention to warning signals" (p. 158). 
At a rudimentary level, extroverts get a buzz from opting to do things. This can be great in a lot of situations. But more destructive if in risk oriented fields like trading stocks. Later on it's commented upon that introverts are especially good at making a plan and sticking to it in a disciplined way. So I'm not great at making decisions quickly. My Input Strength doesn't help here either. But there's something to be said about slow-decision makers. They are prone to consider the plethora of outcomes and think a few steps down the line of reasoning. I have to prepare myself when serving on-call in my residence life role. But I shouldn't downplay my ability to reason and make good decisions when given the proper time and space.

5. Free Trait Theory

"According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits - introversion, for example - but we can and do act out of character in the service of 'core personal projects'" (p. 209). 
A majority of my days are filled with meetings, many times in one-on-one settings. I often finish my days drained and tired. But I also don't tire of the work I do. I couldn't explain the dissonance very well. This little theory does a lot to help me think through what my "core personal projects" are - facilitating student learning, discussing important topics - and better understand why I'm willing to act outside of my personality trait for the majority of my days.

--

There you have it. There were plenty of other coherent, insightful take-aways from the book but those were five that stuck out to me. Likewise, introversion/extroversion is one aspect of our personality and thus our personhood. So here's to better understanding one more aspect of our selves.


Reference

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Books.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best Movies of 2016

It's been a good year for movies. From action to drama to comedy to animated movies, there were solid offerings throughout the year along with the usual plethora of Oscar bait movies in the holiday season. As has been noted by many others, 2016 was a rough year so I find it all the better that we have a wide spectrum of voices being represented. The film industry has a long ways to go on gender, racial and other forms of equality but I was happy to see a wider spectrum this year.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
OK, this is my guilty pleasure favorite. I generally enjoy Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island guys but I sat down to this movie with very mediocre expectations and those expectations were surpassed. They were surpassed not by an especially heart-felt plot line or biting satire of celebrity culture though the movie holds up fine in those categories. The reason I enjoyed this movie as much as I did is because of the insane joke-density, specifically in the first 45 minutes. It had me laughing. Non-stop. Never-stopping.


9. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater has a way of putting his finger on life as it actually is. Boyhood and the Before... movies are prime examples. Everybody Wants Some!! gets college right. While set in a frat-like house for the college's baseball team in the 1980's, I saw parallels to my own college experience and the experience of my own students. My and (most of) my students have less alcohol and hookups in the few days leading up to the first days of school. But there's an excitement and uneasiness that Linklater captures so well. A constant searching for place and social positioning. This movie was a lot of fun and it's tone was spot on.


8. Finding Dory
I saw this one at home later on in the year after hearing scores of "Good, but not as good as Finding Nemo" reviews over the summer. I'm a fan of Nemo but don't have any strongly held attachment to it so I came into Dory with an open mind. And I was very entertained and impressed. I'm not sure why I don't come into Pixar movies with crazy high expectations but the joke density, artistic animation, and story line were on point. Another great installment for the Pixar people. 


7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Well, if this is the standard for the Star Wars spin-offs, count me in for the next 8 movies most likely coming our way in the next decade. I loved the new cast. The banter wasn't quite at the level of the originals or The Force Awakens but I never felt like it was overly somber. I didn't have a desperate need for this particular Star Wars story to be told but I found it making the particular universe all the more richer.


6. Midnight Special
Director Jeff Nichols and lead Michal Shannon paired up for the excellently off-kilter Take Shelter back in 2011. When I saw them back together I was intrigued and excited for what was to come. In Midnight Special (as a spiritual sequel to Shelter), the story remains weird and mysterious but larger and more susceptible to being a blockbuster without losing the specificity of characters and plot development. I saw the movie twice and enjoyed the ride on both occasions.


5. Moonlight
Moonlight was making waves at festivals early on in the year and was a fairly unanimous critical darling. When I got a chance to see it, I understood why. It's the three-act story of Chiron, struggling to find his identity amidst adversity and unfair circumstances as a child, adolescent, and adult. The movie never feels sorry for its lead, nor does it dip into any sort of emotional manipulation. It does chronicle the formative relationships and experiences of Chiron, doing so in a beautiful, meditative way. Go check this one out if you haven't already.

4. La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling starring in a movie directed by the Whiplash guy, it would be a pretty big disappointment for this movie not to crack my top 5. Not one particularly into musicals, I loved the music in the movie. The visuals matched, both for the music numbers and throughout. And back to Emma & Ryan, they have an ease and comfortability between them that can't necessarily be manufactured. Oh, and the movie isn't all eye-candy and catchy tunes, it expertly depicts what it looks like to follow your dreams and, more importantly, what must be sacrificed.


3. Zootopia
Thanks to a wife that has a deep appreciation for both animated movies and animals and, more particularly, the intersection of the two, I saw Zootopia in theaters. (I also saw The Secret Life of Pets and Sing on the big screen.) It was excellent. The animation was fun. The jokes (largely puns) did their job. The movie speaks clearly, confidently, and with nuance on the importance of diversity and the danger of prejudice. It's a great movie for kids and adults.


2. Don't Think Twice
I recently read an article from The New Yorker on how and why improv comedy is the new sensation for so many bored and lost college educated. It helps with thinking on your feet, reading other people, and being creative within the constraints of a format. While I could certainly improve in those areas, I would be fine never attending an improv class nor even see a live performance. But Don't Think Twice tones down all the annoying parts of improv and pulls out all the nuanced aspects of the subculture. The movie focuses on the lifers, those who live and breath improv and are actually good at it. But how long do you keep doing something doesn't really pay the bills and doesn't really have that many spots available to progress? The ensemble cast works through those questions in mature (and funny) ways unique to themselves. No real answers are arrived at but isn't that how it is?


1. Arrival
Arrival is an excellent, thought-provoking blockbuster sci-fi movie that also comes at just the right time. Distinct from his previous movies though also distinctly within his wheelhouse of tone and theme, Villeneuve hits the nail on the head this time. Amy Adams carries the weight of the lead and Jeremy Renner and the others do fine. To me, Arrival sets itself apart through its story-telling. Earth receives extraterrestrial visitors and Adams' character is tasked with communicating with them. The movie is an exhilarating ride and there are some important points made along the way about being patient and intentional about listening to others. But then as the movie progresses, you start to realize that the entire structure of the movie mirrors the communication of the visitors and your mind is blown but not in a cheap way but more in a, "Wow, that was impressive, I need to re-watch this" way. Arrival is great and fun and important. 
 
Honorable Mention: (listed alphabetical)
10 Cloverfield Lane; Cafe Society; Captain America: Civil War; Captain Fantastic; The Edge of Seventeen; The Fits; Fences; Ghostbusters; Hail, Caesar!; Hell or High Water; A Hologram for the King; Hunt for the WIlderpeople; The Innocents; Jackie; Keanu; Life, Animated; The Light Between Oceans; The Lobster; Loving; Manchester by the Sea; Miss Sloane; The Nice Guys; Nocturnal Animals; Sing; Star Trek Beyond; Swiss Army Man; Weiner; The Witch

Highly Anticipated: (listed alphabetical)
13th; 20th Century Women; Allied; Doctor Strange; The Eagle Huntress; The Founder; Hidden Figures; I Am Not Your Negro; Lion; Moana; A Monster Calls; Paterson; Silence

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Best Albums of 2016

I sent the following to a group of music-loving friends a month or so ago and thought it appropriate to sum up the year in music.

What a year. Among the heaviness and division, I've been encouraged by the occasional glimmer of hope, usually through listening to the story of someone other than myself. And who does this better than the artist, the poet, the prophet, and the musician? I'm holding on to the joy of sharing, recommending, and discovering new music through the eyes and ears of my friends. So maybe we can all be encouraged by listening more.

Here's a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite tracks of the year.

And here are my favorite albums of the year.

10. Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love
Donald Glover dropped this funk album late in the year. And it came as a surprise following his previous hip-hop and pop stuff. But it is a good one. I'm still getting into it a little bit but I respect Glover as an entertainer and look forward to hearing more about this side of him. Track to check out: "Redbone."


 9. Explosions in the Sky - The Wilderness
Okay, I primarily listen to Explosions as background music. But it's great background music while working. It calms but isn't boring. It builds and falls. Track to check out: any will do.



8. James Blake - The Colour in Anything
The third full length from Blake, it's probably his most meandering but it's still his classic electronic R&B and is beautiful in it's own way. Track to check out: "Timeless."

7. Frank Ocean - Blonde
Perhaps my (and many others') most anticipated album of the year, Ocean finally released another following his channelORANGE masterpiece. It wasn't what I was expecting. It's parse and weird but excellent in it's own right. Track to check out: "Self Control."

6. Phantogram - Three
I have a soft spot for Phantogram. They hit all my buttons: catchy electronic-pop coupled with a female vocalist. They've put out another solid release this year, good from top to bottom. Track to check out: "Cruel World."


5. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
I'm not one to typically fall for a country album yet Sturgill has a distinct sound that's honest and comforting without falling into the beer and pick-up truck tropes of pop country. I've given the album a lot of spins this year. Track to check out: "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)."


4. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
After Radiohead's The King of Limbs mess, I wasn't sure what to expect from their follow up. But it's one of their most listenable albums. Personal and political and an overall fantastic album. Track to check out: "Daydreaming."



4. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Justin Vernon moves at his own speed, recording and releasing when he feels it appropriate. I would get frustrated but each new installment in his discovery is new and different and yet still very Bon Iver. Track to check out: "22 (OVER S∞∞N)."


2. Beyonce - Lemonade
Queen Bey. Picking a single genre to slot this album in would be nearly impossible. For most artists, this would feel disparate and messy but Beyonce holds it all together, telling a beautiful story from her point of view that feels both personal and universal. The visual album is gorgeous and only aids in creating cohesion for the album. Track to check out: "Formation."


1. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
This is the voice 2016 America needed. Chance is full of hope and joy while never once glossing over hardships. He's someone that can have a tracklist that places the song "Same Drugs" after "Blessings." He's full of multiple emotions and experiences. The album was wonderfully written about by my man David Dark on MTV and his SNL performance was just magic. I loved this album and it brought me a lot of joy this year. Track to check out: "Blessings."


Honorable Mentions: (listed alphabetically)
Gallant - Ology
The Head and the Heart - Signs of LIght
Local Natives - Sunlit Youth
Lucius - Good Grief
The Lumineers - Cleopatra
Rihanna - ANTI
Solange - A Seat at the Table
A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Antihero Marriage in Media of Late

Spoiler-y warnings for Gone Girl, Fates and Furies, The Americans, and House of Cards.

In the last fifteen years or so, the antihero has seen a rise in popularity. Tony Soprano and Walter White led the charge and it's more or less a standard these days. A lead protagonist has always needed a  chink in their armor, but they've typically held the moral high ground within the confines of the movie/book/series. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) can leave a wake of dead bad guys in pursuit of rescuing his daughter in Taken despite his (very) questionable methods. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) can cause loads of destruction but he's hell-bent on discovering the truth and holding the CIA and American government accountable for their actions and thus justified in his actions. So the hero is still very much alive. But there's just as many Dexters (Dexter, Michael C. Hall), Don Drapers (Mad Men, Jon Hamm), and Nucky Thompsons (Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi) to fill out the antihero column where, ultimately, they have immoral and objectionable aspirations or methods despite often times having the audience's sympathies.

I just finished Lauren Groff's 2015 novel, Fates and Furies and it was excellent. A story of a marriage (Mathilde and Lotto) told over the course of decades. First half of the book gives Lotto's perspective and backstory and I would characterize it as moving and intimate and sweeping. The latter half is told from Mathilde's perspective and the novel turns dark and tormented and revelatory. Neither husband nor wife are pure or selfless though both love the other in their specific way. Upon completing the novel, I started to think more about the antihero-marriage.

Call it gender equality or just the natural progression of themes within popular media, but I've seen a number of examples of the antihero-marriage over the last five years. The most obvious comparison to Fates and Furies would be the 2012 novel and 2014 movie Gone Girl. In both books, both partners are equally responsible for betraying and harming the other yet find a strange, demented form of equilibrium in order to move forward in the relationship. These stories are primarily about the marriages themselves though certainly contain their fair share of crimes, manipulation, and mystery to magnify the emotional love and hate the partners have for each other.
Gone Girl's Amy and Nick Dunne
In the realm of television, FX's The Americans has a nice blending of marriage with spy work. As Russian spies living as Americans in the 1980's, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) negotiate their needs and desires for their relationship though their spy work also and simultaneously takes center stage in terms of plot progression. This might be the one example of a couple that truly loves each other. A less optimistic version of marriage is showcased in Netflix's House of Cards which follows Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in Frank's rise to the presidency. While both Frank and Claire are seen as equals throughout the first few seasons, season four specifically and especially showcases both of them as lead protagonists where their ambitions lie outside of the marriage and their partnership is based purely on political and power advancement. They know that they are at their most powerful when working together as a team, remaining together as a means to an end rather than any sort of emotional support or commitment to each others.
The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
In many of these examples, there are fairly specific traits for the men and women. The men are primarily concerned with advancing in their careers, finding meaning and fulfillment through external means. Fates and Furies' Lotto seeks to become a meaningful playwright. House of Cards' Frank rises to the presidency and must find ways to maintain his position. In terms of their relationship, they are more prone to be guilty of inattention (Lotto) or philandering (Nick from Gone Girl). The women, conversely, are often committing the larger crimes though are sly and calculating. Gone Girl's Amy is culpable of a plethora of murders and set-ups. Fates and Furies' Mathilde has the more contorted backstory and is thus capable of more egregious offense against her partner. The Americans is perhaps the one example where both Elizabeth and Philip have equal ownership and power in terms of their roles as spies and in terms of their marriage to each other.
House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood
Aside from The Americans, these antihero-marriages all give fairly pessimistic views of partnerships. I think there are still examples of hero-marriages in popular media. Friday Night Lights and Parenthood quickly come to mind as prime examples though both shows have vastly different tones than the other examples. I'm interested in where the antihero-marriage goes in popular media in the future. And I'm wondering if there are many examples of the female antihero? A quick Google search results in some of the above mentioned women though I would contend that they are co-antiheroes due to their partnerships. UnReal's Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) appear to be more independent. Overall, fascinating progression, no?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Wisdom from Robinson as portrayed in Lila

The latest in my reading is Marilynne Robinson's Lila, a third installment in a series following Gilead and Home, the former winning the Pulitzer in 2005. Many people point to Gilead as one of their favorites and for good reason. Robinson is able to capture the slowness of life, its complexities, and its struggles, while remaining committed to a deep spirituality and religiosity. She holds all of those themes in a work of fiction (could it even be done in non?) in heartbreaking and beautiful ways.

If unfamiliar, the novels revolve around a few people in a small town in Iowa named, Gilead. The plot moves along slowly though is more concerned about the inner workings and relations between the primary characters. Rev. John Ames, well into his old age, is concerned with imparting wisdom to his young son in Gilead. The Boughton family, close friends with Ames, and their family dynamic is explored in Home. And finally, Lila is told from the perspective of Lila as she first meets and marries Ames, much older than herself. In it, Lila thinks back to her upbringing as a drifter and despite being a largely uneducated woman, she thinks deeply.

Lila may come in as my favorite of the three. Something about the title character's simple yet profound take on life had a ring of familiarity despite her life situation being anything but similar to my own. She found it hard to commit to her husband, to be loved by others, to reconcile the depravity of the world with her husband's (a reverend!) belief in an all-loving God. The conversations between Lila and Rev. Ames are just perfect, giving room for doubt and questioning and graciousness for disagreement or, rather, differing perspectives.

--

As alluded to in the first paragraph, there are a handful of themes and ideas written about oh so beautifully. Here were a few of many of my favorites...

On being married:
"Lila had no particular notion of what the word 'married' meant, except that there was an endless, pleasant joke between them that excluded everybody else and that all the rest of them were welcome to admire" (p. 75).
On considering loved ones who are not baptized:
"Like most people who lived on earth, she [Doll] did not believe and was not baptized. None of Doane's people were among the elect, so far as she knew, except herself, if she could believe it. Maybe their lives had gone on, and some revival preacher somewhere had taken them in hand. But Doll's life ended, and no one had rested his hand on her head, and no one had said a word to her about the waters of regeneration. If there was a stone on her grave, there was no name on it" (p. 97).
And on the movies:
"...at least she always had a movie to think about. And when she was sitting there in the dark, sometimes, when it was crowded, with somebody's arm or knee brushing against hers, she was dreaming some strangers' dream, everybody in there dreaming one dream together. Or they were ghosts all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them. And then the dancing and the kissing, and all of the ghosts floating there just inches from a huge, beautiful face, to see the joy rise up in it. Like sparrows watching the sun come up, all of them happy at once, no matter that the light had nothing much to do with them" (p. 208).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Ruminations on Lauren Winner's "Wearing God"

Summer has arrived and the calendar is relatively clear. There's lots of books to read, movies/TV to watch, and music to listen to. As is always the case and rarely the reality, in efforts to more deeply process what I'm consuming, I hope to also write about a few of the highlights along the way.

A while back, I finished Lauren Winner's book Wearing God, her latest ruminations and theological wanderings couched nicely in her story-telling. In it, Winner explores the lesser explored metaphors we use for God. For example: smell, laboring woman, or laughter. For me, coming from a thoroughly Christian background and having almost always lived in one Christian bubble or another, the metaphor for God as shepherd or cornerstone or [fill in the blank] do not become less true but rather become more easily looked over.

I've long been a believer that all Truth is God's Truth. This maxim often reveals itself in pop culture, say movies, for example. The depravity of drug use in Requiem for a Dream or the joy and art of cooking in Chef. While neither of these movies contain the whole truth (what single story does?), they have elements of God's larger Truth for us as humanity and are honest to the story's individual characters. I think I've long been generous in allowing unusual and, sometimes, untested art and stories and situations speak to me. I'm comfortable with my current state of generosity though I'm still learning.

What I really enjoy about Wearing God is Winner's ability to speak very intelligently and personally to truly connecting with God through all corners of life. All of her metaphors are drawn from the Bible though she explores the grittiness of the human experience. The importance of breathing in the labor process or laughter that is proleptic of the world to come. The book has been a good reminder for me not to allow the "all Truth is God's Truth" adage to lead towards uncritical consumption but rather to see life for what it is, full of God's goodness despite our fallenness. I believe this type of perspective is like putting on 3-D glasses after only seeing in 2-D though I'm not sure of the biblical soundness of this metaphor.