Streaming Reccomendation: Y Tu Mamá También

On a general level, my attitude toward most of the streaming services’ catalogs can be described as such:

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The big online streaming platforms (which for simplicity’s sake I’m counting as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube) have done a disservice to the vast expanse of film history, paring down their movie offerings to either the exceptionally popular or titles that are cheap to purchase the streaming rights for (clearly things are different on the television side of the equation, but that’s not my lane). Hardcore cinephiles have had to turn elsewhere for their classic/indie/international kicks, and luckily we have been gifted the incomparable FilmStruck and the exceptional Fandor.

If you find yourself craving an excellent film, but don’t have the extra $10/month to shell out for these services, it’s easy to feel like you’re SOL with the major streaming services. But fear not! Here at NQN, we are launching our Streaming Recommendations series, where we recommend the great slices of film history that hide in plain sight on the big streaming platforms.

First, the 2001 Alfonso Cuarón film, Y Tu Mamá También.

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Y Tu Mamá También is a genre-bending film. Google identifies it as a “Drama/Comedy-Drama”, so basically the ultimate search engine just spits out genre buzzwords when asked. Y Tu Mamá También has been identified as “coming of age”, as a “sex comedy”, and, if you ask me, a “politically driven coming of age sex dramedy”.

The film follows best friends Julio and Tenoch in the days immediately following their graduation from high school. Both their girlfriends are going abroad to Europe, so the boys are left to gallivant and embrace their hedonistic tendencies to their hearts’ content. They meet an older woman, Louisa, at a wedding, and, despite being married to Tenoch’s cousin, attempt to seduce her by inviting her on a trip to a far-off beach. The main section of the film deals with their road trip across Mexico, the people they encounter along the way, the conversations had while hotboxing the car, and the toxicity associated with Julio and Tenoch’s competition to sleep with Louisa.

I am loath to spoil any of the details of said trip, but suffice it to say that Y Tu Mamá También earns every label I ascribed it in my attempt to identify its genre. While the ostensible plot moves rather slowly, everything else moves at breakneck speed, bouncing from conversations on drugs to sex to the lives of working class Mexicans and all the way back in a span of a few minutes. Every time I’ve watched Y Tu Mamá También I’ve found something new, either a side-splitting joke or a poignant new socio-political message.

The politics of Y Tu Mamá También are difficult to describe, as most of it is either presented visually or inferred through plot details. If you aren’t up on Mexican history (I wasn’t when I first saw it), a lot of it can go over your head. There are two important things to know before watching. First is that one party held control of the government for 71 years (elections were not considered “free” by anyone outside Mexico up until the 90s) and Y Tu Mamá También takes place during the election that voted them out of power. Second is that NAFTA was enacted in 1994, and played a huge role in the stratification of wealth among rich and poor Mexicans. There were very few middle-class citizens (though, critically, Julio is one of them).

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s technical chops have never been questioned (he won an Academy Award off of them via Gravity), and Y Tu Mamá También is no exception. The film is a masterwork of neo-realism, able to simultaneously weave long takes and “slow” moments into a commercially appealing work. Cuarón doesn’t think we’re all impatient nitwits, and is willing to linger in scenes and shots in the service of both character development, and replicating Mexico as realistically as possible. The film also contains my favorite long-take ever, see if you can spot it.

Y Tu Mamá También is one of the funniest films ever made. It is one of the more sexually explicit films ever made. It is also one of the best examples of how to make an extremely potent political film that is also immensely entertaining. You can enjoy Y Tu Mamá También without looking for what it’s really about. But once you start reading between the lines, that’s where the best things are hidden.

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Where to watch: Netflix
When to watch: A good weekend romp. Friday or Saturday evening.
Who to watch with: Some good friends, or a significant other. Do NOT watch with family.
What to look for:

  • Look for details in the background. What’s hanging on the walls? Who’s in the background? What are they doing?
  • If our non-diegetic narrator pops in, PAY ATTENTION.
  • What does Tenoch’s father do? Why does it matter? Pay close attention whenever he’s brought up.
  • What’s Julio’s last name? What does it reference?
  • What’s the name of Julio and Tenoch’s group? What’s their “code” called?
  • Who pays? Why?

Milky Way, Bas (AoTW)

After a two year wait Bas, Queens rapper, label mate of J.Cole is finally back on the scene with a new album, Milky Way. This has been one of my most highly anticipated albums, and I was absolutely thrilled when it dropped. There were feelings of both excitement. and concern–what if it’s not as good as his last album? What if he doesn’t get the right features? A long list of what-ifs raced through my mind as I began to doubt one of my favorite artists.

Boy was I a fool. I was wrong to ever doubt this guy. From the first song on the album he came out swinging for the fences. Two years must have given Bas a lot of time to experiment with his sound and hone his skills, because he sounds better than ever.

 

From the silky smooth beat selections on songs like “Barack Obama Special”, “Icarus”, and “Tribe” (just to name a few) to the amazingly crafted flows on tracks like “Boca Raton” and “Tribe” ( anyone sensing a trend here?) Bas definitely brought his A-game this time around. In addition to experimenting with his flows, he expands his vocal range on this album.  On “Sanufa” and “Front Desk” his singing is fantastic and really fits his voice. I wouldn’t be upset if he continued to explore this in future albums, tracks, or features.

 

The features are perfect for this album. Going with some bigger names for the singles was a smart move as it definitely drew me into the album (even though i was planning on listening to this album already, news of these features added to the hype for me). J. Cole drops one of my favorite verses of his on “Tribe”. “Tribe is beautifully crafted and is definitely the biggest stand out from this album. When Bas and J. Cole get together on a track you should always expect greatness. In addition, A$AP Ferg absolutely kills it on “Boca Raton”. The tropical vibes from both of these songs really got me going, and I hope Bas continues to experiment with that format. The other features fit the songs they were on perfectly. Ari Lennox is sublime  on “Icarus”, and Correy C goes in on “Fragrance”. Of course I have my dream features who I think would fit with Bas, but if he keeps selecting people the way he does I will continue to be a happy man.

 

All in all I think that Milky Way was Bas’ biggest and best effort yet. I don’t mind waiting two years between each album if he keeps coming out with quality music like this. I have been listening to this album front to back since the day it came out, and it may have surpassed Beerbongs & Bentleys for best album of 2018 in my eyes. Keep it up Bas, you’ve got a high ceiling and I hope you keep climbing!

 

PS: For this AoTW I will be having a friend (Fish) tell you all of his favorite songs from Milky Way because he loves the album as much as I do. In the future there may be picks from other people, but most of the time it will just be from me. Thanks for reading!

 

Rich’s’ Picks:

“Tribe”, “Barack Obama Special”, “Fragrance”

Fish’s Picks:

“Tribe”, “Purge”

 

Score:12/10

Check out “Tribe” here!

 

Mateo (A Collection of 15s Series)

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*Ring ring ring ring*

Mateo heard the sound of his grandfathers music box from his bed. It sounded louder than normal. Maybe it was all in his imagination.

*Ring ring ring ring*

There it goes again. This time he was sure it was louder than the time before. Then Mateo sat straight up. ‘Wait a second’ he thought ‘that music box has never gone off by itself before…. what the hell is going on?’

Mateo bolted up out of bed and immediately recoiled in shock as his feet hit the cold hardwood floor.

As he creeped towards the window sill the music box on it began to get louder, almost as if it was beckoning him towards it.

The sun was beginning to rise, giving the situation an even more eerie feel. Mateo stopped at the window sill, waiting to see if the music box would sing to him again. Seconds were passing by but it felt like an eternity. He decided he should open the window. Maybe some fresh air would snap him out of this trance.

Upon opening the window a gust of fresh sea water from the Mediterranean basin blew into his room and he remembered how peaceful this time of the morning could be.

Then the music box started singing to him again.

*RING RING RING*

Singing actually doesn’t begin to describe the affront to Mateo’s ears. It was like a blood curdling scream at that point. Mateo knew he wasn’t dreaming now. Whatever was going on, was real.

He began to open up the music box and he heard what sounded like a faint whisper.

“It’s not real. None of it. Get out while you can”

Then the singing stopped.

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Phantom Thread’s Demme Influence

I absolutely adore Phantom Thread. Many of its qualities seem handpicked to whet the cinephile’s appetite, from the delicacy and precision of character movement, to the dreamlike quality of the score, to the range of emotions that emanate from Alma, Reynolds, and Cyril in every frame. Similar to many of my personal favorites, it is a film which makes the ordinary hypnotic.

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Another quality which endears cinephiles to Phantom Thread is the obvious reverence that it has for film history. Director Paul Thomas Anderson repeatedly mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) as the main inspiration for the film, but other images and styles from the annals of film history pulsate through Phantom Thread. A simple Google of “Phantom Thread influences” finds numerous essays and videos attempting to showcase Anderson’s appreciation for the masters of the form who came before him:

However, there is one influencer of Anderson (and consequently Phantom Thread) who seems to be missing from the conversation.

Paul Thomas Anderson loved Jonathan Demme. Following Demme’s passing in April 2017, Anderson moderated an entire weekend’s worth of discussions and panels on Demme’s oeuvre. Anderson made note of a number of motifs which stood out to him during the screenings, a few of which you can see clearly imprinted upon Phantom Thread:

“One thing I would say about all of Jonathan [Demme]’s films is that there’s not background in the traditional way that you see like somebody mindlessly crossing in the background of an office. Literally everything, every person in the frame seems to have some role or story going on.” –Paul Thomas Anderson

While Phantom Thread is an intensely personal film, chronicling the dynamic relationships of Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril Woodcock, Anderson ensures that any scene with extras shows said extras with some ulterior action or motive. In taking this cue from Demme, Anderson creates an entirely new multi-dimensional world with Phantom Thread. A world alive with people of all shapes and walks of life, not merely a sandbox for our central characters to roam in. For a film which deals with wealth, opulence, and luxury, such a grounding in reality is crucial. It allows the viewer to engage with the piece in a manner not possible while residing strictly in the realms of fantasy.

Another aspect of Deme’s film-making that is imprinted in Phantom Thread (and Anderson’s filmography in general) is Demme’s choice in shot angles and framing. Demme loved to experiment with what he called the “subjective camera”, and expand upon “the little snippets you see in Hitchcock and Sam Fuller”. In most cases, Demme represented this via extreme closeups directly in front of a character’s face. Demme fully admits to not inventing this type of shot, but he did take it further than almost anyone else (except Yasujirō Ozu). In some film circles, the shorthand term for this type of shot is “the Demme closeup”. And indeed, both Demme and Anderson make heavy use of these extreme closeups, which have a tendency to make characters appear to pierce the fourth wall and make eye contact with the viewer. This angle has appeared throughout both of the directors’ filmography, shown below from Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998); and Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017):

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While this is a solid starting point, there’s even more to be found be delving into Demme’s idea of the “subjective camera”, and how it relates to Phantom Thread.

Take, for example, Demme’s Swimming To Cambodia. It is, ostensibly, nothing more than a recording of Spalding Gray’s on-stage monologue of the same name. But Demme’s choice of when to use the subjective camera is of note. One such example comes when Gray is imitating his girlfriend yelling at a neighbor (below). Demme places the viewer in the yellee’s shoes, to punctuate the intensity of moment:

But if we go beyond this initial analysis, we find more levels of subjectivity in this shot. As much as it may feel like it, we aren’t being put in Gray’s neighbor’s shoes, because we are receiving the tale secondhand. Gray is merely conveying his girlfriend’s shouting to the audience as he understands it, and Demme is conveying his understanding of Gray’s attempt to replicate the scenario. The layered meaning of the “subjective camera” throughout Demme’s filmography lies beyond the innovative framing of perspective shots.

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Anderson takes this idea of subjectivity even further in Phantom Thread. The film’s story is framed as being told to Reynolds’ doctor by Alma, following her ‘mild’ poisoning of Reynolds to “calm him down”. This easily forgotten detail is crucial, and informs how Phantom Thread should be watched by an active viewer. Alma is our guide through the world of London couture and House Woodcock. This detail is the raison d’être for the dreamlike quality of banal sequences, the hypnotic rhythm of the day-to-day, and the overall intensity of the film. It is one Alma removed from reality, thus coloring the world seen on screen as she sees fit. It contains a filter that could be said to contain a mixture of nostalgia, and either exaggeration or understatement.

Was Reynolds truly as overbearing, anal, controlling, and possessive as he is portrayed in Phantom Thread? Or is Alma remembering it that way to justify her actions in poisoning him? Or is the opposite true? Could Alma be underselling Reynolds’ toxicity to justify her love for him and fend off a doctor that clearly desires her? Ultimately it is for the viewer to determine.

But it is vital to recognize that we are not observing Phantom Thread through anyone’s eyes but Alma’s, and the entire film is viewed through this “subjective camera”. Anderson has taken Demme’s love for the subjective camera to its limits, by subtly making an entire film told via this view, all while weaving elements of Demme, Hitchcock, and over a century of film history into the tale.

Phantom Thread is a fitting homage to one of the great directors of the modern popular cinema, who himself was an avid student of film history. It takes elements of Demme’s style, mixes them with the things Demme loved, and creates a masterwork of subjective storytelling. Anderson provides a wonderful send off, for the mentor who influenced him most.

 

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The Underappreciated Scene Transition

One of my personal favorite touches in filmmaking is when a film’s editing ties two separate scenes together such that the way in which a transition takes place conveys meaning beyond that of a normal cut. Film (more accurately speaking, media of the moving image) is unique in that transitions from one scene to another can be instantaneous. In the vast majority of cases, this means that the production of two different scenes is a self-contained exercise, wherein each is shot separately, and then placed in its order in the film’s narrative, with the only interaction between the two scenes being said narrative link. The transition itself is given little or no thought.

However, there are sequences throughout the annals of film history that aim to creatively weave scenes together, and make an artistic statement via a dissolve, cut, wipe, fade, etc. Such sequences and transitions can make a film much more cohesive, and can elevate the artistic meaning of a film beyond the reaches of a “conventional” cut.

To show what I mean, here are my three favorite examples:

1. Citizen Kane’s (1941) “eye dissolve” 

I mean, come on. This eye matching is just nutty.

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To not only have the foresight to plan such a transition, but be able to formulate a way in which you can stage and shoot these scenes and get that eye match is the sign that Orson Welles was in an elevated stratosphere of filmmaking while making Citizen Kane. Also, the rest of the stained glass gives some more symbolic meaning to Susan’s character (the scales being the clearest). But I’ll leave that for you to read into.

Sometimes the greatest scene transitions are much more subtle in practice, but can make a grand statement. Sadly, these moments of greatness often go unnoticed, as is the case with my second example:

2. Opening credits zoom out from O Něčem Jiném (1963)

This one doesn’t appear to fit within the theme of scene transitions. Moreover, it doesn’t even seem all that interesting at first. I consider it a scene transition because without the zoom it would be incredibly difficult for a first-time viewer to discern that they are watching a TV being filmed. As such, the audience moves from watching an isolated performance by a gymnast, to a family’s home. But still, why is this transition worthy of praise? Sure, it’s mildly impressive that director Věra Chytilová is able to convincingly shoot the scene such that we can’t tell we’re watching a TV, but the two zooms (first being a zoom away from the gymnast, then a zoom out to the living room) aren’t all that great in isolation.

The reason why I love this particular transition has to do with O Něčem Jiném’s structure as a film, and how this subtle introduction interacts with it. O Něčem Jiném (English title: Something Different) has two seemingly separate stories that are intercut with one another. Edgar Cochran sums it up nicely:

“Two stories are simultaneously told. One dutiful mother progressively becomes a frustrated woman who is the only one assuming the family responsibilities of working at home and looking after her only son, whereas her husband works all day, does not appreciate his wife’s efforts and the only thing he does by the time he gets home is to read the newspaper and watch soccer matches. On the other hand, a female gymnast prepares for her last competition before her career retirement, but faces pressure from her trainer and a lack of motivation to keep going. The film depicts frustration on both sides, and parallels two worlds dominated by men, where women do not receive any recognition, and in case they do, it is momentary.”


What Cochran does not mention is that the gymnast is Eva Bosáková, an actual Czech gymnast whose scenes were shot while she was training for the 1962 World Championships in Prague. Her segment of the film is a documentary, with Chytilová observing what was going on behind the scenes in her training sessions. Conversely, the story of housewife Věra (played by Vera Uzelacová) was written for the film, and is “fictional”. This opening sequence is the only interaction that the two stories have in Something Different, and yet it proves to be one of the keys to the film’s meaning. Chytilová is expressing that the struggles of the housewife are just as real as those of the gymnast, by connecting their worlds through this framing device. If the gymnast’s story is real, and contained in the diegesis of the housewife’s world, it makes the housewife’s world just as real. An extremely potent and subversive statement, especially for 1963.

And finally, my absolute favorite transition

3. A statement on race and power, from Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life tells the story of aspiring actress Lora (Lana Turner) who befriends and takes in African-American Annie (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora’s career takes off, Annie becomes the family housekeeper. However, Sarah Jane is extremely fair-skinned, and passes as white for the majority of the film, much to her mother’s dismay. She begins dating a white boy, but her race and his racism come to a head in the following scene:

CONTENT WARNING: RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE, RACIAL VIOLENCE

 



The loud, seemingly-ill-fitting jazz in the background punctuates the beating scene such that it forces the audience to pay attention—you can’t ignore it as “normal conventional movie drama” anymore. Then, it abruptly cuts to Annie giving Lora a foot massage, as Lora says “Ahh that felt so good.” Such a line following a savage beating like that is not merely coincidence. The visual symbolism of a black woman giving a white woman a foot massage underscores this.

This has been read numerous ways, including as a confirmation that director Douglas Sirk secretly harbors racist sentiments himself. However, my reading is one of a commentary on society and the prevailing attitudes of the time. Sirk is arguing that white people of the day, no matter how seemingly allied with black people (as Lora is through the film) are willing to make black people subservient in order to fulfill their desires. When a black person gets out of “their place” (as Sarah Jane did), it “feels good” to put them back (violently, if need be). Sirk later acknowledged that the two African-American characters were the main characters of the film, claiming that he “subversively undercut Turner to draw focus toward the problems of the two black characters.” I mean, just look at this screenshot:
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Lana Turner’s skin and costuming practically blend into the monochrome set, something that repeatedly happens to all of the white characters in the second half of the film. Sirk reduces her to furniture; he’s visually confirming that her story is NOT the one that matters. Such a visual strategy makes it hard for me to believe that he used the preceding cut as some sort of sick joke.

Instead, I think it was Sirk’s way of undercutting his apparently progressive and “colorblind” leading white family. This transition shows that even though Lora claims she views Annie as an equal, she truly views her as a subordinate. Even though she appears to love Annie and Sarah Jane, she is aghast earlier in the film when she discovers that Sarah Jane is dating a white boy and not “one of her own”.

I cannot understate how important it is to consider this transition in the context of the film as a whole, and recommend wholeheartedly that you go watch it now. But the fact that even in isolation it can be so pregnant with meaning is a testament to the power of editing in film, and reinforces what a shame it is that this opportunity for artistic expression is so criminally underutilized.

Loss, Grief, and the New York Mets

My father passed away on May 28th, 2017. The 11 or so months since then have been the longest, hardest, and most bizarre months of my life.

When you lose a loved one, one of the things that people who’ve previously experienced loss warn you about is that grief “comes in waves”. Seemingly random things will remind you of the deceased. These waves are sometimes positive, mostly negative, and you usually never see them coming.

When my father died, I was getting coffee at a local shop with an old friend. I returned home to the awful squeal of ambulance alarms and the anguished cries that you only hear when someone leaves this life. Every day on my commute to work, there’s a sticker advertising that coffee shop on the meter where I pay for my parking. Every morning, at around 5:40 AM, memories of that awful day come flooding back. It is, unequivocally, the worst part of my day.

These moments are the things that make grief such an all-encompassing experience, for months, years, decades after the initial shock of loss. Nine times out of ten, I want nothing more than to escape them.

Which is what makes the Mets’ hot start all the more odd.

My Father and I used to go on trips every summer to catch a baseball game in as many different ballparks as possible. During my teen and pre-teen years we went to 17 different stadiums in 13 cities. Much to the chagrin and envy of my siblings, it was just me and my dad who went on these excursions to embrace America’s pastime.

We spent countless hours in airports, rental cars, and hotel rooms. We ate the local cuisine with the delight and vigor that can only come after a two hour flight delay and three hours in coach. We went to all the tourist attractions in Chicago, St. Louis, and even the much-maligned Cleveland. In short, we saw a snapshot of America.

Above all that though, we saw baseball. It was a sacred experience, just a father and his son, taking in a ballgame. We shut off our cell phones, and only allowed ourselves one half-inning to snap pictures with our camera. For those three to five hours, the only things that mattered were the crack of the bat, the scrape of a slide, the low hum of the crowd, and the pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.

Even though we saw games all over the country, and became experts on each team by the time we left their place of residence, it always came back to our beloved Mets. My Dad was born in 1962, and one of his oldest memories was racing home to watch the Amazin’ Mets of 1969 play in the World Series. His childhood home was just down the street from the elementary school, so all of his friends would come over to watch Tom Terrific battle the vaunted Orioles’ attack. By the time the last out settled into the glove of Cleon Jones, my young father had already become a Mets fan for life.

I grew up with stories about that team and the 1986 squad. We had a commemorative VHS recap of the ‘86 season in my house, and my brother and I must have watched it 200 times in our youth (you can experience it in all of its amazingly cheesy 80s glory here). I was the weirdo six-year-old who said stuff like “Mookie Wilson is my favorite baseball player” even though he retired four years before I was born.

On summer evenings, whenever my Dad got home from work, we’d throw on the TV and watch the Mets. They were usually terrible, as is the case with most Mets squads. The Mets have never really had a sustained run of excellence, so even when they have a great season, it’s usually bookended by mediocrity. It’s what makes those magical runs all the more special.

In 2015, when our beloved Mets made the World Series, My Dad took my brother and I to see game three of the NLDS at Citi Field. It was the game after Chase Utley injured Reuben Tejada on a dirty slide, typical of what I’d expect from a former Phillie. The crowd that night was unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. It was electric. There was a stretch of three innings where we never sat down. When Yoenis Céspedes hit a three-run rocket to make it 10-3, all three of us were jumping and yelling in pure euphoria.

That was one of the greatest nights of my life. I was with my Dad, at the ballpark, and the Mets were on a magical run. It was perfect.

 

 

My father and I never got to share a Mets World Series title. It brings me comfort to know that he saw two in his life. But my first will be experienced without him. It is a fact that has brought me to tears in the past few months, a fact that almost makes me fearful of the emotional strain that will come if our Mets hoist the trophy.

I avoided ballparks all of last summer following my father’s death. It was an experience that was too entangled with him; to go to the ballpark for the first time without him was to admit that the man who had cultivated my love for the game was gone.

However, the Mets have gotten off to their best start in franchise history this year. Each new win beckoned me to the park, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that if my father were still here, we would have already bought tickets. These are the inescapable emotions during grief that make seemingly positive moments clouded and confounding. What “should” be an unblemished positive becomes an infinitely more complex sensation. A yearning for the presence of my father, so that we could share in this joyous occasion.

I went to the park on Saturday night, and witnessed the Mets suffer just their second loss of the year. The scene was familiar; the cracks, scrapes, hums, and pops were still there. Yet something was missing. Someone was missing.

Going to a baseball game will never be the same knowing that my father will never join me there again. But thus far, it is the only “wave trigger” I’ve found that lifts me up rather than tear me down. A rush of memories come back, an inexplicable typhoon of smells and sounds and thoughts of time spent with the man who raised me. Watching the Mets play is so much more than watching a simple baseball game. It is communing with my father, who I love and miss dearly. And for that, I am beyond grateful.

Let’s go Mets.

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Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, I highly recommend that you check out “Life, Sports, and the Pursuit of Happiness” by my best friend Michael Graziano. It’s excellent, and had no small part in influencing this essay.  I also suggest you read “The Fiberglass Backboard” by Bryan Curtis, which has helped me through the past few months in more ways than I could list here. Thumbnail image copyright Bleacher Report, 2015.

The Great Book Race of 2018

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Editor’s note: This e-mail exchange took place between 3/31 and 4/5. Since then Andrew has finished one more book and Maggie has finished two, because she’s a tryhard.

Andrew Nichols: Alright Magz. I got beef with you. My New Year’s resolution this year was to read a book a month. By no means a lofty goal, but one that I felt I could accomplish and feel good about.

Then I log onto instagram on Jan 6th and see this crap:

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(Go follow @magzreadz on instagram if you don’t already).

So now I gotta double my book goal, and I have an instagram account telling me how far behind I am. I’ve done four books thus far and just started number five. Meanwhile you just finished book 5, right?

@Magzreadz (Maggie Cavanaugh): Yeah, that’s right, and you know me, I can get competitive too, so knowing I’ve got you not too far behind me is a great motivator. A book a month is a great goal, but isn’t this more fun?!

I’m reading books of all genres, whatever I’m feeling like picking up next. Do you have a certain genre you’re sticking with, or are you in the same boat? And what have you read so far?

Andrew: Same for me. Personally I tend toward nonfiction but the book I’m reading right now if my first fiction book of the year.

Thus far I’ve read Chain of Title by David Dayen, American Cinema: Directors and Directions by Andrew Sarris, Backwards and in Heels by Alicia Malone, and The Horror Genre:From Beelzebub to Blair Witch by Paul Wells.

What about you? I know you already gave out ratings on your instagram, so how about we do some superlatives?

I’m thinking BEST BOOK, MOST ADDICTING, WORST BOOK, and finally the ones we recommend vs. those we don’t?

Maggie: So far I’ve read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Into the Wild by Jon Kraukauer, Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen, Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

That plan sounds good! I’ll make up some superlatives for the books we don’t cover with those categories.

Andrew: Good looks. Without further adieu…

BEST BOOK

Maggie: So far this award goes to Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is real and raw in her tellings, and she encounters a fair amount of entertaining situations. I struggled to put it down, when I needed to.

Andrew: I haven’t read it yet but I’m definitely gonna keep it in mind now. I just remember walking out of the movie adaptation thinking that the homie Reese Witherspoon was dope.

For me this goes to Chain of Title by David Dayen. This is the book that’s hardest to explain, hardest to read, but is also one of the most vital books in a while. It’s about how banks used shady, often illegal practices to skirt around regulations during the height of the subprime mortgage bubble. Essentially, banks were selling off people’s mortgages at such a fast rate that they ignored many of the centuries-old property laws that govern home ownership. When the bubble burst, millions were foreclosed on, oftentimes by banks that were not the initial owner of their mortgage (so like, if you got a loan from Citi, and they sold it, then Chase tried foreclosing on you even though you’ve never interacted with them). The book tells this story via three people who noticed the skirting of laws, fought their foreclosures in court, and ended up becoming activists during the financial crisis. There’s hella jargon, it can be confusing, but I’ve also never encountered more “Wait, hang on , they did WHAT?!”, or “holy shit that’s bad” moments in a book before.

WORST BOOK

Maggie: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen. I hate giving this book this particular  superlative, because I LIKE Carl Hiaasen, but so far, this book is at the bottom of my list. I just couldn’t get into it, the story took forever to develop, actually, I never felt like it REALLY did.

Andrew: Adolescent Andrew loved Hoot so hearing that Hiaasen wrote a shitter of a book is disappointing.

Maggie: Don’t be too upset, one of my favorite books is by him (Skinny Dip). It’s hilarious and captivating, if you ever feel the desire to read a fiction book, I would definitely recommend it.

Andrew: I at least somewhat enjoyed all of the books I read so this is a tad unfair. But alas, this has to go to The Horror Genre by Paul Wells. It’s interesting, and goes in all sorts of directions you wouldn’t get from a mainstream book. But Wells is so clearly writing for grad students and other academics that it can be frustrating. He falls into the trap of thinking that he needs to use the thesaurus on every word. This book reminded me of the most painful readings from my film courses in college. It’s brief (just over 100 pages) and opens your mind up (Marxist and Darwinist tendencies of Horror, anyone?) but still a slog.

Maggie: Sounds like an enticing one; it’s always a disappointment when the topic of a book is interesting, but the language feels so broken up and unnatural when the author tries too hard.

MOST ADDICTING BOOK

MaggieInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I read this book in a day, basically refused to put it down, it was beyond fascinating to me, and left me inspired to rough it out in the Alaskan wilderness, because anyone can do it according to Chris McCandless, it’s why we were put on this earth. Adventure awaits… until you get hungry… and die. I finished this book and started Wild right away, thinking I’d encounter another adventure that inspired me so much that I’d convince myself to ACTUALLY go on a hike (mind you, I was on crutches while reading both books… perhaps I had a small case of cabin fever…) but Strayed told the whole, more true, truth about ditching civilization and living in the wilderness, bringing me back down to earth.

Andrew: Krakauer is interesting to me—I read Into Thin Air way back because a ton of people recommended it. It was solid, definitely a slow starter that picked up momentum. Krakauer got his start as a writer for the magazine Outside and I never felt like he ever fully transitioned into being comfortable writing books. He can hook you in, sure, but it feels very sectioned, divided—almost like it’s one of those Dickens books where chapters were released as they’re written. I think it’s fitting that Wild felt more real; it was written from the perspective of a person finding themselves rather than a journalist preaching to the outdoorsy choir.

Maggie: I never really thought of Into the Wild as sectioned when I read it, but you bring up a good point. Thinking back, the chapters were all very distinct, as if each one was it’s own short story, each one being related to the other, but separated nonetheless.

Andrew: For me this superlative goes to Backwards and in Heels by Alicia Malone. Malone is one of my favorite film critics/writers/content-creators going right now, and she did an awesome job with this book. Basically it details the history of women in Hollywood filmmaking, via a series of biographical essays on women in periods ranging from the late 1800s to the present (people like Ava DuVernay, Viola Davis, etc.). Malone writes in the intro that you can hop around to whatever you find most interesting, and that’s exactly how I read it. It’s awesome to be able to jump to whatever catches your eye, and I ended up reading all of it in one jumbled 4-hour session. Malone’s at her best when she can expand on a known figure (Marylin Monroe, Gina Davis) and make larger observations on their work and reception. But even when she’s just doing an information dump it’s really entertaining and informative. I wish it wasn’t just Hollywood-centric, because I’d love to be able to read about the influential feminist European directors from Malone’s perspective (and also because Chantal Akerman and Věra Chytilová are two personal favorites of mine).

Maggie: Sounds amazing! I’m all for reading about strong women in history. Women in Hollywood tend to captivate the public eye more than any other group of ladies, so they set the scene for the times, kind of like the #metoo movement going on now. I don’t know if any social issues were brought up in that book, but I’m sure it was interesting to see how times changed along the timeline of the book. I’d love to read it!

As for my other two superlatives, they are:

MOST NOSTALGIC

Maggie: Which goes to Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham. I grew up rushing home from school to watch Gilmore Girls, so I read this out of not only interest, but also for the nostalgia factor, the 13 year old inside me was ecstatic.

And the other is…

MOST POMPOUS

Maggie: Which goes to Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I almost quit reading this book multiple times because Gilbert was so irritating, I found her beliefs ignorant, and her stubbornness in some situations was outrageous.

Andrew: I have no clue how Eat, Pray, Love became such a hit. Everyone I know who has read it has absolutely hated it. It’s pretty easy to find happiness when you’re given a $200K publisher’s advance to fuck about all over the world.

At any rate, my superlative is:

MOST “ANDREW’S WHEELHOUSE” BOOK

Andrew: Which goes to American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. I’m a sucker for rankings. I’m a sucker for auteurist film criticism. I’m a sucker for authoritative works that clearly come from a wide knowledge base. Sarris’s style is not for everyone. Hell it’s probably not for most people. But I absolutely love it. This book inspires the closest thing to bar arguments that film scholar have, and I adore it. It helps that I agree with Sarris on most things (though Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk are underrated, while Robert Flaherty is criminally overrated) but I think if you disagree with him it can still be a fun hate read. Lots of jokes and stray observations keep it lighter than a purely academic piece.

Maggie: Sounds like it was written for you to read. Humor in more academic texts is so important, otherwise its so easy to lose your reader, unless theyre being forced to read it for class, but even so, a successful author will not make their reader roll their eyes at the thought of their name.

Andrew: Well thanks for doing this Magz! We’ll check back in at the next milestone (ten), whichever one of us reaches it first. And you better watch your back, I’m comin’ for the lead.

MAGGIE RECCOMENDS:

  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  • Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham

ANDREW RECCOMENDS:

  • Backwards and in Heels by Alicia Malone
  • Chain of Title by David Dayen
  • American Cinema by Andrew Sarris

 

Mining Film in a Digital Age: Art in its Context

“The more you look, the more you see.”

–Multiple Authors

 

In Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M”, a serial killer (Peter Lorre) wanders around Berlin, stalking, kidnapping, and murdering children one by one. He is hunted by both the police (using the highest technology of the time) and the criminals of Berlin (who want to get the suddenly zealous police off their backs). Eventually, the killer is identified by a blind man who recognized the tune that he had constantly been whistling: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg.

Have you heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King”? It’s a trick question; I already know that you have:

“In the Hall of the Mountain King” is one of those songs that everyone knows, they just don’t know that they know it (that sentence makes sense, I swear). You’ve heard it countless times in your life. It’s been  in countless commercials, movies, and TV shows. It’s come to be associated with slapstick situations, and overall, when used, it is to invoke a comedic tone. When you hear it, you probably think of one of these over-the-top scenes. Or maybe you don’t think about it at all, and it’s been relegated to“background music that I’m already pissed is stuck in my head for the next 4 hours”.

And that’s the problem. Because, for Fritz Lang’s M, “In the Hall Of the Mountain King” (from now on referred to as “Hall”) holds a great deal of meaning. “Hall” was written by Edvard Greig as an accompaniment to act 2 scene six of the play Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen. The song carries great significance in the play, as it scores the scene when the titular central protagonist is about to meet with the Troll king, in the King’s great hall (as far as I know, Henrik Ibsen did not have access to hallucinogenic drugs. He was just an interesting dude). The Troll King and Peer discuss the phrase central to the play, which represents an attitude that is the subject of criticism in Gynt: “To thyself, be enough”. It is a phrase which characterizes pure selfishness, but is one embraced by Peer and the King.

Grieg tried to encapsulate this with his music, writing:

“For the Hall of the Mountain King I have written something that so reeks of ‘to-thyself-be-enough-ness’ that I can’t bear to hear it, though I hope that the irony will make itself felt.”[Santon, Tim. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.]

Indeed, the idea of only doing enough to satisfy yourself, without regard for others, is one that fits nicely on a child-murderer. It adds depth and significance to Lang’s decision to make “Hall” the murderer’s theme.

When I first saw M, I had no idea of Lang’s intentions in that song choice. For me, the song carried the connotation of slapstick, of silliness– so that when I encountered it in an older film, it seemed innocuous. I imagine only a tiny fraction of 21st century viewers had a reaction far from mine, or looked into any potential symbolic meaning behind the whistled theme. As a result, at least one part of M’s brilliance was missed.

As art ages, the connotations associated with certain aspects of it change, for a variety of reasons. More media is accessible now than ever, and sometimes the meaning of works of art can change without us realizing it (such as with M and “Hall”). In this media environment, it has become vital for viewers to have a heightened awareness when considering older films, and to try to understand artistic decisions as they were intended, to supplement the way we initially receive them. Because if we don’t, we might miss a stroke of pure brilliance.