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Saturday, December 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Cloud Nine and "That's What It Takes"

Well, it's my birthday; I'm 49 years old. Looking forward to hitting the half-century mark in just a year's time, I'm wondering a lot about how I got here, and where I'm going to go, and whether I have the strength or time or resourcefulness to get there. And so, of course, in a mystical coincidence that George Harrison himself wouldn't have been surprised by in the least, I end this journey through albums of 1987 that still mean a lot to me 30 years on with a beautiful, reflective, wise, and ultimately upbeat work that was released late in the year, one that I listened to endlessly as winter settled in all around me towards the end of my first semester at BYU: Harrison's awesome Cloud Nine.

I wasn't a huge Beatles fan as a kid, but I heard them; they formed part of my earliest rock and roll consciousness, listening to the radio and being overwhelmed by music from these bands and performers that, in later years, I'd come to recognize as giants. Of the solo work by the individual Beatles, I probably was more likely to identify something by McCartney or Lennon than Harrison. I really didn't know much about him, truth be told. But then this album hit, and "I Got My Mind Set on You" was all over the radio, and I had to give it a listen. And what an ear-opener it was. By turns jangly and smooth, atmospheric and blusey, echoing all of (what I later came to recognize as) Harrison's loves from rockabilly to Indian mysticism, I adored it. Most of all, I guess, I loved how song after song struck rueful, introspective, but never despairing tones. This was an album that owned up to the passage of time, the passing away of things--yet kept its eyes focused straight-ahead nonetheless. In the decades since 1987, as small triumphs and smaller tragedies have piled up and shaped me, this album's sounds have meant more to me all the time.

How to pick one song off it? I'll go with "That's What It Takes," a song I can't find any live recording of anywhere, but whose sound--with Eric Clapton and Harrison trading guitar solos, and Gary Wright's keyboards, under Jeff Lynne's direction, providing a dreamy synthetic undercurrent throughout--is one of the greatest pop creations I've ever heard. "Don't let it stop / never fade away" indeed.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2017

In alphabetical order. Remember, these are the best the movies I saw for the first time this year, not necessarily the best movies that were new this year (though four of these were):

Dunkirk. This movie was superb in every way: visually, aurally, narratively, dramatically, the whole package. If forced to choose, I would have to call this the best movie I saw this year, and it stands, I think, with masterpieces like Paths of Glory, Das Boot, The Big Red One, and Apocalypse Now as one of the greatest movies ever made about war. I've never seen the chonologically-uneven-but-still-overlapping-storylines method work as cinematically well as it did here; through that means, Christopher Nolan could show us desperation and heroism, selfishness and sacrifice, in equal measure, with none of those messages every undermining the other. An exciting, sobering, thrilling, inspiring film.

Foxcatcher. There are a lot of ways in which I wonder if this movie might have been even better if this strange story of muscular connection, miscommunication, and mental illness had been kept more intimate, on a smaller scale. After all, far and away the best stuff in the movie were the close, loving scenes between Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as the wrestling Schultz brothers who found themselves caught in the creepy machinations of John du Pont (with a wonderfully weird performance by Steve Carrell). But then, you're dealing with a real-life story that involved the U.S. Olympic team and one of the richest men on the planet, so keeping is small-scale probably wasn't an option. Anyway, a captivating, tragic, strangely mis-sized story.

Locke. Now, talking about a mis-sized movie, here's the complete opposite: a film that, except for a few minutes at the very beginning and a final shot or two at the end, takes place entirely within the driver's seat of an automobile being driven by Tom Hardy over a period of several hours to London. Through it all, we're watching the face of Ivan Locke (up close, in profile, through the front windshield), as he makes and receives phone call after phone call, from his wife, his child, his co-worker, and from doctors and an old tryst of his, and as he tries to hold together a life that, thanks to both his own choices and the randomness of fate, is flying apart in desperate fashion. A fascinating movie, one that Tom Hardy did incredible work in.

Logan. I saw a half-dozen superhero movies this year; of them all, Spider-Man: Homecoming was without doubt the best. That movie was a perfect genre delight; it was exciting, affecting, funny, tragic, and outrageous in exactly the way a superhero movie should be. But it didn't make my list. Why not? I suppose because it simply, superbly, fulfilled my hopes and expectations--whereas the two superhero movies that did make list did so not only because they were good movies, but because they did something with the superhero genre that I found moving and thrilling in unexpected ways. Logan is one of those two. Anyone old enough to remember what a stunning revolution the character of Wolverine was in the American comic book world when Chris Claremont and John Byrne re-invented him in the early 1980s has probably been, at best, ambivalent about the way old Logan was been used and abused in the comics, on tv, and in the movies in the decades since. Hugh Jackman himself made it clear how tired he was getting of the character, and that he was hoping to walk away from Wolverine on a high note. Well, with Logan he got that. At least as much a dystopian Western as a superhero movie, with near-Tarantino levels of violence, but violence that was (with maybe only a couple of exceptions) never distracting or exploitative, but rather inherent to the ugly, emotionally draining story being told, this was a movie that transcended its genre, and deserves all the praise it received.

Mr. Turner. I'm not a huge fan of Mike Leigh's work--he is, as I think any movie-goer will admit, not the most audience-pleasing director out there--but I'm glad I gave this movie the time to work on me. His and Timothy Spall's depiction of the painter J.M.W. Turner was never in-your-face ugly, but neither was it prettified; rather Leigh and Spall and everyone else involved in the movie's set design and cinematography found a wonderful, subtle quality in how they presented this gross man, living in his dirty world, and drawing out of that personal and environmental ugliness a light and color which endures. There was a great, clever carefulness to how it was all put together, and probably not the sort of thing most movie-goers are looking for. I don't know how I would have responded to the film in the theater, but in the quiet of our living room, watching it slowly on Netflix, its magic, its pathos and occasional quiet wit, really worked on me.

Rififi. One of two movies on this list that I watched this year and kept hitting myself while doing so: "How could I have not seen this movie already?" Anyway, at some point this year Melissa and I rewatched Ocean's 11, and while it remains as fun as ever, I found myself mildly turned-off at just how smooth the whole story was; I felt like I needed to see a caper where the cleverness comes at a cost. So that led me back to the acknowledged classics, and when I saw this movie--with its brilliant, 33-minute-long, dead-silent, perfectly executed heist, which is then followed by an ever-more raucous and desperate collapse of their whole criminal conspiracy--I knew why it had always been included as one of the very best.

Run Silent, Run Deep. This was the other movie that I could have slapped myself for having missed for all these years. Yeah, it's a submarine war movie, with all the tropes we've become familiar with: diving deep, cutting the motors, running silent, trying to listen through the murky depths, hoping to fool the other submarine or the battleship above. Did those tropes originate with this film? Probably not, but man, did it hit every genre note and then surpass them. I've got to give credit to the wonderful alchemy of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as the leads: you can't help (or at least I couldn't help) reading Gable's performance as stagey and melodramatic, while Lancaster's seemed to feature a hyped-up, ostentatious naturalism. Yet, in a way, they made that work for their characters: the old captain, holding on to his command, and the young officer, torn between duty and instinct. A great, fun, passionate film.

The Secret in Their Eyes. It might be easy--and perhaps not inaccurate--for the mostly white, mostly upper-middle and upper-class, critical film audience in the U.S. to downgrade this movie slightly as stereotypically misogynistic and "Latin." To be sure, machismo plays a big role, one that the leading lady (the beautiful and compelling Soledad Villamil as Irene Menéndez, the American-trained judge returning the post-Dirty War Argentina) not only doesn't object to, but in fact happily employs in pursuit of her goals. But there's more than sexual stereotypes in this film; it is, besides an intriguing romance, a taut, politically realistic police procedural, one that begins with a shocking act of violence and ends with one of the psychologically creepiest scenes I can remember. This film deserved its Oscar, that's for sure.

Their Finest. Not many people saw this movie; I think it hardly played in any American theaters. I only knew about because someone online mentioned that Dunkirk wasn't the only movie about the drama of Dunkirk in 2017, and I only saw it because it showed up as an option while I was flying to (or maybe when I was flying back from?) Singapore. Anyway, it's sort of a romantic comedy, but it's also a scrappily un-American and un-Hollywood movie about movies--which becomes one of the great in-jokes in the film, when for political reasons the English film brass decide that the war-propaganda Dunkrik movie that the stars of this actual movie are making--titled "The Nancy Starling," the name of one of the little boats that assisted in the evacuation (though actually it didn't)--needs to have an American character show up for some reason. The movie is alternately quietly witty and an outright tear-jerker; sometimes manipulative and sloppy, with a couple of utterly out-of-place performances, it's nonetheless a wonderful movie about myths and their importance: the stories we tell ourselves when we're young and our plans aren't working out, and when we're old and need to be reminded of why we made the sacrifices we did. A charmer (and frankly, I'd watch "The Nancy Starling" in a heartbeat if it actually existed).

Wonder Woman. Of course, the other superhero movie which broke genre expectations was the wonderful Wonder Woman. Not as good a movie as either Logan or  Spider-Man: Homecoming, it had some real weakness (I'm looking at you, Steve "the Hollywood suits told director Patty Jenkins that she had to give Diana a love interest so here I am" Trevor), and some of its plot points just fell plain flat. So why is it here? For the obvious reason: this is a major studio, summer-blockbuster, superhero-genre release that starred a female character. And fault my feminist cred or attack my gender essentialism all you want: it is, I think, simply indisputable that there were scenes in this movie--narrative choices, dialogue, jokes and thrills and emoting all alike--that simply could not have been done with a male lead. The fact that the story was solid, the acting generally excellent, the special effects and visual style all engaging are important, but more important than any of that is that Wonder Woman carried this movie. That's not only important, it's good.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2017

Here's my list, in authorial alphabetical order:

33916061Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I've read Coates's essays for years, but it was this book, which puts together some of Coates's best work for The Atlantic and, more importantly, ties them together through multiple mini-essays by which Coates himself reflects, both critically and autobiographically, on what he was trying to do in those essays and what that effort says about where he was, intellectually and politically, at the time, which truly captivated me, and made me realize what an intellectual treasure he is. Coates has been subject to a huge amount of debate and argument in the wake of Trump's election, and I have some conflicted opinions about all that. But as to the question of whether Coates is a writer absolutely worth reading, I'm not conflicted at all.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityMatthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. This is a detailed, careful, but also (I think) compulsively readable work of sociology, and that in itself is a rare enough thing that it deserves celebration. But this book deserves a wide readership not just because of the author's skill, but also his subject. Desmond's years of enthographic investigation and diligent research as produced a close, unsparing study of one rarely examined (or, at least, I hadn't ever examined it before) aspect of American poverty: the role played by substandard housing, and the whole range of laws, practices, and assumptions which make stable housing so precarious, and its loss so devastating, for the American poor. I found it a blistering, relentless work of exposure, one that anyone who cares about economic justice should read.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. It would be very easy, and not especially wrong, to present Dreher and Coates as perfect antagonists: Coates is both utterly secular and convinced that white supremacy, under many different guises, best explains America today, whereas Dreher has made himself notorious this year for publishing, after many years of argument on his blog and in other writings, what many people have read as a manifesto for white conservative Christians who feel themselves under attack in an America far more secular, and far more diverse, than it was a generation or two ago. But I'm going to stand by the importance of Rod's arguments, and not just because I consider him a friend (full disclosure: I'm listed among those Rod thanks in the foreword); in the midst of his--self-confessed!--tendency to apocalyptic thinking and us-vs.-them hysteria, he is working out here an argument about modernity and its discontents, and how both conservative Christians, as well as anyone who cares about their received traditions, should respond to the arguably destructive "mobilities"--in terms of technology, economy, and identity. It's not a message that speaks to everyone equally, including Christians; those whose religious doctrines differ from his--the books is far more dependent upon certain specific political-theological claims than I think Rod realizes--aren't really his audience. But many besides that audience have read the book this year nonetheless, including myself, and I'm glad I did.

The detective novels of Tony Hillerman, particular The Fallen Man. We've had a paperback copy of Hillerman's Dance Hall for the Dead on our downstairs bookshelf forever; I think I might have inherited from my maternal grandmother, who has a big fan of Hillerman's detective stories. For whatever reason, at the beginning of the summer I pulled it off the shelf, read it, and found it a delight--and quickly grabbed another four Hillerman novels (The Blessing Way, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, plus the above) from out of our university library, which I then read one after another over the summer, enjoying them all (though some more than others). Hillerman wrote 18 novels starring Sheriff Joe Leaphorn and his assistant Officer Jim Chee, so I haven't even gotten a third of the way through his corpus; maybe I do another Hillerman run next summer. For now, I'm going to put The Fallen Man up as the best of the five I read; it's a compelling mystery, all the more mysterious because, in the midst of all the tradition and tension on the Navajo reservation where these stories are set (and which Hillerman regularly used to great, spooky effect), this is a surprisingly straightforward story of human passions and jealousies gone wrong.

Image result for Urban America Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy image David Imbroscio, Urban American Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy. David Imbroscio himself gave me a copy of this book around a year and a half ago, and to my shame I've only gotten around to reading it now. Why to my shame? Because it's excellent. David makes an clear, careful, and (I think entirely) persuasive argument against the liberal assumptions underlying both urban regime theory and liberal expansionism, two dominant theories in urban sociology. More importantly to my mind, he puts into the context of urbanist arguments about state-market relations, community development, and a host of other concerns the ideas of Marxist, localist, distributist, social-democratic, classical republican, and numerous other critiques of liberalism. I've been able to recognize those connections before, but I lacked the language to properly describe those connections, and that's a language David provides for me here. The fact that these connections range widely might be considered a flaw, but I don't see it that way; this is a book about asserting the plausibility of a new context for thinking about city problems, and, as the final words of the book say, starting a conversation within that context. For my part, I've been flailing around in that context for a few years now, but now I've been given a map, to help me better understand where I've been, and what areas of exploration remain open for me.

Leigh Jenco, Changing Referents: Learning Across Time in China and the West. Years ago, I assumed that I was going to make my career as a scholar of Chinese political philosophy and intellectual history. That, obviously, didn't happen, for a lot of reasons. But despite my lack of linguistic expertise or even much by way of a publication record, I've somehow been able to keep at least one toe in the scholarly world of East Asian thought and comparative political theory over the years, so much so that I keep getting invited to conferences to speak on matters I really don't know that much about. Leigh Jenco's wonderful, challenging, and partly exasperating book--a superb intellectual exploration of the ideas of Chinese radicals in the early 20th century, and how those ideas arguably challenge many theoretical presumptions about how we compare ideas across cultural and linguistic worlds--provided an opportunity like that for me this year, in which I traveled to Singapore and discussed matters philosophical with a lot of scholars way above my pay grade. That trip, and the book which prompted it, provided me some of the headiest intellectual experiences of my year.

Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed. This is one of those classic sci-fi novels that I should have read decades ago, but never did. I'm grateful for whomever it was that planted into my head the idea of teaching an Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, and focusing on the work of Le Guin as a way to do it, because as a result I read not only this book, but also The Left Hand of Darkness and a dozen short stories of hers, and I basically loved them all. But if I had a choose one for this list, it has to be The Dispossessed, because of its incredibly detailed imagination of a radical anarchist world, but also because of the compelling way in which that act of world-creation gave force to the equally compelling character development which takes place throughout the book. An awesome sci-fi tale, one worth treasuring.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I've read Pollan's work for years, but like with Coates above, I'd never sat down and read through any long, detailed argument of his before this one. I am glad I finally did! Pollan not only reminded me why he's one of the best scientific journalists writing today, but he also enabled me to see how thinking about cooking--in all its chemical, nutritional, historical, and social aspects--isn't just an side-issue to his long pre-occupations with food, health, and agriculture, but rather an essential continuation of it. We are, and have been ever since that key moment in human evolution many thousands of years ago, cooking animals, and understanding how so much of everything from our taste buds to our civilizations are wrapped up in transforming the animals, plants, earth, and air around us into bread, brisket, and beer is both deep and fascinating. A wonderful, thoughtful, and mouth-watering book.

Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles. I'm pretty certain that I didn't read another book this whole year that gave me as much unmitigated, geeky, fascination-filled pleasure as this book. I'm not the greatest Beatles fan in the world, but I'm enough of a fan that Sheffield's delightful semi-stream-of-consciousness "history" of the Beatles captivated me with its musical minutiae, its sharp commentary, its frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and its plain, unapologetic fan-boyishness. He makes the case that we all, every one of us popular music-consuming inhabitants of the modern Western world, can't help but be "dreaming" the Beatles whenever we strive to make any sense of all of our pop world; as far as I'm concerned, he makes his case very well.

The Tolkien Reader J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader. Not being satisfied with one Honors Seminar on speculative fiction, I decided to teach another, this one with a focus on Christianity and fantasy literature, particularly as represented by the Inklings, Tolkien being the most famous member of that group. As part of this class, we read a lot of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams (plus some Dorothy Sayers and Madeline L'Engle as well), much of it new to me. None of it, however, hit me as deeply as some wonderful essays and short stories by Tolkien, stuff that I've known about forever but had never taken the time to read. I'm not talking about his justly famous "On Fairy-Stories"; I mean "Farmer Giles of Ham," which I found terribly sardonic and witty, "Smith of Wootton Major," a simply delightful and thought-provoking fairy tale, and most of all "Leaf by Niggle," which is hands-down the best, most haunting and revealing, short work of Christian fiction I've ever read. Tolkien was not just the author of so many of us geeks' imaginary lives; he was a damn fine writer, and this collection proves it.

Honorable Mention: Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids. Not by any stretch one of the best books I read this year, but this close (but not nearly close enough!) parody/re-imagining of the Scooby-Doo gang investigating an old, mystical, eldritch horror-mystery years after their retirement was a fun summer read. More importantly, it got me thinking about Scooby-Doo stories in general, which--thanks to the help of some FB friends--got me hooked on Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (by far that best television-watching experience I had all year), and that in turn got me fascinated by great cartoons of my past and opened me up to some great current cartoons, Samurai Jack, Gravity Falls, and (especially) Over the Garden Wall in particular. So, this was a book that revealed to me (or reminded me of) a whole world of imagination, and for that I must give it credit.