Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Mural

There’s a mural at a park near me. It’s of a bunch of birds local to the area -- I don’t know if it’s all of them or just the most common ones, but there’s certainly quite the variety. The most well-known one is one that, inexplicably to me, was painted with red eyes so it looks like an avian possessed by some sort of demon.

Calm down, this isn’t going to turn into a spooky story or anything like that (though that’s a pretty good hook to save for later).

My friends and I call it the “Demon Bird.” “Do you want to go see the Demon Bird?” we’ll ask each other when it’s nice enough to walk a block or two and then through the park’s one main pathway. I have to admit, though, we don’t even look at it most of the time. We’ll get caught up in our own conversation and not pay the mural any notice.

Recently, though, the cracks in the wall are starting to show. There’s even a part that’s been painted over, and I don’t mean, like, tagged or anything by someone with a can of spray paint, I mean just painted over the same color of the background. I wouldn’t call the mural out of the way, but it’s still, you, know, not visible unless you’re looking for it. I don’t know how many people care about this thing besides me.

I guess that this post is more about the nostalgia of it, which is probably ironic given what I could have been writing about this week. It’s my own personal memory of this landmark that I know isn’t going to exist for much longer.

There isn’t really much more to say about it than that.

-F

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Nostalgia (Part One)

Alright, so it turns out that this is actually going to be a multi-parter thing. Length is still an issue, but I also have some concerns about my ability to talk about Kentucky Route Zero in a meaningful capacity given how recently it was completed (and how recently I completed it. I’ve got a lot to think about). In the meantime, though, I guess the other piece of media I recommended catching up on can serve as as good an introduction as any. Let’s talk It Makes A Sound.

But not right away.

Last week I mentioned that I was interested in dissecting a small piece of Americana. I was actually inspired by a set of posts I came across talking about how “western-centric” media has tended to be, especially “America-centric.” This was in response to Kentucky Route Zero’s release, which is why it’s so important to discuss in this series, I think, and the general reaction to these posts was, well, that may be so for a lot of media, but KRZ couldn’t really be set anywhere else -- it’s an Appalachian ghost story and it sticks to each word in that genre description very seriously.

I don’t want to link these posts here for a couple reasons. Firstly, it would have the potential to add fuel to an already (thankfully) dead discussion, but secondly, I’m more interested in the implicit question being posed here. What makes a story “American”?

We’ve seen attempts at this. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have led the charge in terms of American Fantasy Epics in The Stand and American Gods respectively, and what they both seem to emphasize is the country’s vastness. America is huge and varied, and yet the central “American-ness” of an individual town or city’s location can be connected. The Road Trip Novel is this sort of genre.

But America has another feature that, for better or worse, has become a facet of the country’s identity: The American Dream. The idea that this is the place, more than anywhere else, where hard work is rewarded. Of course, the idea only had to be thought once before it was viciously deconstructed. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle ends with a massive plea for socialism (that went unnoticed because the descriptions of the meatpacking industry were too visceral), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby reveals that its titular character, despite his hard work, still didn’t get anything that he wanted, and so on, and so on. This is even ignoring a large number of black and other people of color’s experiences, or the native population’s experiences, or…

The point is, the failure of the American Dream also feels -- to this American writer, at least -- like an intrinsic part of quote-unquote American stories. It also ties in neatly with its last point: recency. America is a young country, and that youth means that locations can change massively at the whims of fate. There’s an entire subculture, for example, dedicated to exploring malls that were set up at the end of the last century only to collapse since the online shopping industry established itself.

I do want to stress, at this point, that these are large generalizations. Any one of these statements could easily be found to be overly broad. Some of that is the point, though. Defining a country’s “genre” is basically about finding its stereotypes, and stereotypes are nothing if not overly broad generalizations.

Anyway, It Makes A Sound is a podcast by Jacquelyn Landgraf set in the fictional town of Rosemary Hills. “Golf Capital of the World” it proclaims itself on its water tower, and yet, signs of decay appear everywhere, and the remaining population largely consists of old and sedentary people who have nowhere else to go. In the midst of all this, Deirdre Gardner (voiced by Landgraf) comes home and discovers a small piece of her childhood, a tape recording of a concert performed by local genius (her words) Wim Farros. It being one of her few happy memories as a child, Deirdre is desperate to share the music with the world.

One of the common initial impressions of It Makes A Sound is that, well, its first few episodes are a bit of a slog. Sure, it can end as strong as it wants (and it does end strong, I promise), but the first two episodes largely feature Deirdre waxing fake lyrical about her childhood crush without much to support any of that. And this is what attracted me to writing about it, because it’s in that instance that I think the nostalgia the story is going for takes hold. Remember Robert Mckee’s words from Adaptation.? “The last act makes a film. [...] Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”

This actually goes one step deeper in the podcast’s album. A lot of attention is spent on Wim Farros’ concert, and so of course at the end of the podcast, the group’s next production would be a professional production of those same songs, performed by the cast of the show. And it’s a good album. I like it, at least. But what I find interesting is how different the show’s recreation and the recorded album sound.

It may be a bit pretentious for me to say, but I find it interesting that a show about memory and nostalgia creates its own nostalgia for itself. The early foibles are forgotten, replaced by a sort of “No, no, it was charming in its attempts to appear amateurish” and its brief nine-episode length also contributes to its quaintness.

It’s in that, though, that I also find the most “American” (heavy quotes there) qualities. It Makes A Sound is set in a town that America has forgotten in its rush forward, and all it can do for its characters is have them look in that same direction. Always forwards, and it guides its audience there too, through its music and its hopeful resolution. Just something to think about.

I don’t know when this series will continue, but I do hope that it was a good enough introduction to the things I want to talk about through it. It’s kind of like Raindrops on Roses but with a clearer overall theme than just “here are some things I like,” though of course that will see its own continuation soon as well.

See you soon, and remember Wim Farros.

-r

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Foreshadowing

This week’s blog post ended up taking a bit longer than normal, so much so that it’s going to be a next week thing as oppose to a this week thing, but in the meantime, I’d recommend looking into the podcast It Makes A Sound and the game Kentucky Route Zero, though I understand if you can’t make it very far into either. But we’re going to be discussing a specific aspect of Americana using those two media as examples, so it would do some good to be aware.

-F

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

One Brief Encounter Among Many

We have our standard regulars at work, but I only really know a few of their names. I do feel guilty, though, forgetting the others, because they always seem to recognize me. Though in retrospect, they never actually call me by name, so maybe that’s just my own personal worry.

In any case, what I’m more interested in are the dozens upon dozens of other people we see daily that we never really see again. I prefer these moments because they tend to make better stories after the fact, like, when I’m talking with coworkers in between (or during!) meal rushes. My personal favorite actually comes from my first day on the job, where someone came in asking for a refund on their sandwich. Unfortunately, the reason for their dissatisfaction is lost to me, but that’s not the biggest problem with their story.

The problem is that, for as long as I’ve worked there and, according to coworkers who’ve been there longer, we haven’t for a good long while. When this was pointed out to them, they sort of whirled around and then said, “This isn’t Chipotle?” and, like, they don’t have sandwiches either so I’m not sure what that was all about.

It’s a fun story, though, and I’m glad I have it.

-F

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Ruminations on Oscar Gold (Part Three)

I’m a little early this year, but then again, I managed to catch all the Best Picture nominees pretty early. And hey, people like numbered lists, so instead of wandering my way through the same points as the last few years with only a little bit of added discourse -- my ideal Best Actress category would have gone a lot differently, for example -- I figured I could rank them all and give some general thoughts.

9) Joker
I like Joaquin Phoenix and I think he does a good job in this movie, but I also wish he had a better movie to work in. This is not a hot take, but it feels like the filmmakers tried to jam an 80’s Martin Scorsese plot into an origin story, and both of them end up wanting. Any moment Bruce Wayne shows up on camera was a moment I was left wondering why they were there besides justifying the title.

All this is also ignoring the paratext of the movie, how director Todd Phillips made this because, to paraphrase, he couldn’t make a Hangover Part Four, and it’s like, I’m sorry you can’t make the movie you wanted but that doesn’t mean you had to make a whole movie complaining about it. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake finding that out before seeing it, but I couldn’t help watching Joker through that lens and the movie was worse for it.

8) Ford Versus Ferrari
This is one of those movies that I call “aggressively average”. Its story is alright, the acting’s alright, its message is a little muddled but one can draw some conclusions from it even if they’re occasionally messy, and that just leads to a film without much that can be said about it. It’s fine.

7) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
This was another film I knew a bit about before going into it. I knew that Quentin Tarantino’s next film was supposedly about the Charlie Manson killings, and even though the trailers seemed to be leaning away from that (though Manson obviously still makes an appearance), it was something on my mind as I went through the first two acts of the movie. And I really enjoyed the first two acts! It felt a little overindulgent at times, but so did Hateful Eight before it, and I still liked that a lot. But the last act, as flashy as it is (I know a lot of people who will only talk about the flamethrower, for example), felt so disjointed to me that I just have to wonder why the other acts didn’t just get tightened up and end the movie there. Maybe it’d end up too similar to Barton Fink or Hail Caesar! (both by the Coen Brothers) then, but I don’t think that’s bad company to be in.

6) Jojo Rabbit
We’re moving into the “films I liked” portion of the list. And there’s a lot to like. Most of the performances, for example, including Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler that is both necessarily scary while still remaining as goofy as can be expected of the imagination of the ten-year-old main character. It’s a little paint-by-numbers in terms of plot, but still charming in its own way.

5) 1917
I so want to like this movie more. I feel like it hits a lot of my more pretentious buttons, and while it’s those buttons that push it higher than Jojo Rabbit, I also can’t really justify putting it any higher than this. This was the last movie I saw on this list, so I’m still shaking out my feelings as to why, but here’s an honest attempt:

So for those who don’t know, the movie’s shot a lot like Birdman was. That is to say, it uses multiple long takes and stitches them together to create two scenes seemingly happening in real-time. The immediate problem is that, well, I really liked Birdman. I did a whole post about it. And while 1917 is shot the same, it isn’t quite paced the same. A lot of the scenes are stretched out for characters to move around as they talk to each other, and the camera’s slow, methodical approach to following the characters around means this walking and talking has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and it doesn’t quite get there. Compare this to Birdman, which I thought had snappier dialog and a camera that was a bit livelier.

I still recommend it, though. I’m sure it’s going to be somebody’s favorite movie on this list. Just not mine.

4) The Irishman
Okay, so first thing’s first: It’s really hard already to get people to watch this movie given its two-hundred-plus minute runtime. Like, you can like a movie as much as you want, but getting people to spend three and a half hours of their time is a big ask. In some ways, this movie is almost a mirror to Joker. Both that and this film really want to be an eighties Scorcese film, though, of course, this one actually managed to get the director.

I suppose I misspoke a little. The Irishman doesn’t just want to be an eighties Scorcese film, it wants to be the eighties Scorcese film. It wants to use all the elements that made its other films what they were, and there’s a lot of audience superstition in that sort of storytelling. What I find interesting, though, is how it seems to also kill off the same tropes it brings up. It’s based on a true story, but all the surviving characters in that story are either dead or dying. The movie wants us to think it’s the end of an age, and that, I think, is an interesting enough reason to check it out.

3) Little Women
I haven’t read the Louisa May Alcott book, nor have I ever consumed any of its various adaptations, but this still seems like a pretty good one. Sure, there’s a lot of snark I could give it (Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan keep friendzoning each other in Greta Gerwig movies, Laura Dern is 5’10” and that’s hardly little at all) but it succeeds very well in what it sets out to do, which seems to be revitalizing the characters many other adaptations lacked. Because it’s not just Jo’s story, and it’s not just Amy’s story, it’s all of their stories.

2) Parasite
Boong Joon-Ho is kind of a cult favorite and has been for a while. Snowpiercer is his biggest hit for understandable reasons (*cough* Chris Evans *cough*), but all his movies vary in style and genre. Theme, though, is another story. I don’t want to spoil too much about this movie -- if there’s one thing that people seem to agree on it’s that it’s best if you don’t know what’s coming -- but I can’t recommend it enough. As long as subtitles don’t ruin your experience, check this one out while you can.

1) Marriage Story
This one is probably a little obvious given how highly it ranked on my own personal list a couple weeks ago, but yeah. It’s just a really good movie. I don’t know if it’ll win Best Picture -- Hollywood is incredibly fickle (Green Book? Really?) -- but it’s something I can watch again and again.

-F

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Blue Monday

I found out today that yesterday, in addition to being Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Day, it's also called "Blue Monday," which is not something I'd associated with an actual day before. I'd just always thought of it as that New Order song (or, more specifically, it's iconic bassline). I guess I can understand nobody in the US really talking about it when there's a whole other holiday with some pretty necessary themes involved.

I'm imagining somebody telling MLK, like, "Hey, when you die, they'll make a holiday after you, but it's going to be on the day that's regarded as 'the most depressing day of the year.'"

Anyway, it's never too late to reflect on the life of an important political activist and speaker or the events of or stemming from their life. At the very least, if thinking about one's own racial biases is too much self-reflection, you can ask people how it feels when they treat you like they do.

-F


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The More Things Change

After spending so much time off, I finally went back to work the other day and, well, not much changed, really. The same people are still there, they might have different schedules but they’re all still there; the same equipment is still there, with all of their problems still left unfixed; and the same regulars still show up ordering the same things. And I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising -- I didn’t leave for that long in the grand scheme of things -- but it still feels like, I don’t know, like one of these things was supposed to change.

Maybe I’m just overlooking things. We used to have a pretty sizeable pothole in our parking lot, for example. That was paved over. A light in the kitchen now works again (even as the ceiling around it has gotten worse and worse). New dishes are about to appear on the menu. Change blindness could easily be in effect here for loads of other things. But the atmosphere overall still feels the same.

I guess, in a way, that’s comforting, though. After being away for so long, it’s not a and especially while I’m still a little jet-lagged, it’s not a bad feeling to immerse myself in the familiar again.

-F