Source — Yelp

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Merry Christmas, friends and neighbors!

And welcome to the second edition — and the first-ever Christmas edition — of The Weekender: a weekly confection of notes, links, cinnamon, maple frosting, and bacon.

These posts are a miscellany of things I discovered, enjoyed, thought about, and wrote about over the course of the week — things I didn’t have opportunity to revise and develop into standalone posts. It’s ironic and sad, but the work of teaching writing full-time is a 60+-hours-per-week job, and one of the primary consequences of embracing this work is that, well, I don’t have the time necessary for writing and revising my own stuff. So… here’s what I could assemble this week that you might find interesting.

Before we get started, I must say this:

I pray and hope that our 2022 will bring us more joy, more freedom, and more peace than 2021 did. It’s been the toughest year on record for many of us.

But hey — I’m not going to dwell on the troubles of this year. I’m just going to put it behind me and thank God for the blessings that have sustained me through it. I’m grateful for more than I can say, particularly for God’s promises of deliverance — a light that will outshine all of these sufferings — and for Anne, my incredible pandemic partner. I love my job, as challenging as COVID has made it. And I love my home just north of Seattle, which makes long walks at the water’s edge possible almost any day of the week. I’m also grateful that it’s been possible to go to the movies, and I’ll be working on the very challenging task of making my favorite movies and favorite recordings lists for you over the next few weeks.

And since I’m not capable of showing up for any Christmas parties, I’ll share this ghost of Christmas Past: Me, in 1993, at the Christmas party for the Seattle Pacific University Student newspaper, for which the newspaper staff requested that I show up as Santa.


American audiences can finally stream Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

Here are the first impressions of the long-awaited conceptual documentary by Terrence Malick called Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary, notes I posted at Letterboxd.

[Now streaming on MUBI.]

Today, I have been grieving in advance.

Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, the cat that Anne and I adopted in 2002 — yes, 2002 — went into the ER this morning with symptoms that were consistent with an aggressive brain tumor: rapid deterioration of eyesight and coordination; seizure-like fits that rocked his sleep; inability to walk; and more. I was up with him all night last night, as he dozed, then suddenly spasmed into screaming and flailing, and then leaned hard into my hands as I held him and calmed him.

I’m a wreck. I love this animal more than I knew I could. He is 20, and yet he is muscular, funny, smart, and beautiful. He high-fives me. He sleeps at my feet each night. He chases birds in his sleep. He looks like a black cat with faint grey stripes, but when you run your hand from his forehead down the nape of his neck and his back and his tail, a shocking ripple of snow white follows your hand. (His fur is actually white with black or grey tips.) Whenever we take him to the vet, other vets come out of their appointments to see him. They know he is one of a kind, and a wonder in their experience. (He loves going to the vet; he can sense their adoration.)

All day, Anne and I grieved the call that we knew would come. We wanted to be absolutely sure before we gave them permission to release him from his panic and his pain forever.

Rather suddenly, we decided to watch something. Something to take our minds off of our sorrows, to distract us until the inevitable phone call.

So we watched an episode of the BBC comedy game show Taskmaster. And we actually laughed.

But then, I stumbled onto our Roku MUBI app, and there it was: the Terrence Malick documentary I’ve been waiting five years to see. It was only 45 minutes. Is it wise to take on a Malick film on a day full of excruciating stress and high emotion? Normally I’d say ‘no.’

[Image from the MUBI trailer.]


And anyway, Malick’s typical “everyman” narration — an annoyingly monotone style of screenwriting that only makes the distinctive voices of characters in his early films seem that much more interesting — is the kind of thing to get on my nerves quickly. Since The Tree of Life — one of the greatest masterpieces I’ve ever seen, a film that produced so much gobsmackingly gorgeous imagery that this film is made of its cutting-room-floor clippings — I’ve been frustrated with Malick’s Philosophy 101 dialogue. And this film might benefit from a complete erasure of its text, as the speculative images of the cosmos coming into being, of the origins of life, and of the constancy of change do little more than suggest the cosmic questions of existence. Why do we need Brad Pitt reading them? Can’t we just enjoy the music and the imagery and let our own imaginations run wild?

But despite the predictable aggravations, the fusion of awe-inspiring imagery and soulful music quickly swept us away. It reminded us of the dazzling unlikelihood of our world, our environment, our bodies, our circumstances. It filled me with gratitude that I get to be here, that I get to participate, that I get to bear witness.

[Image from the MUBI trailer.]


It made me think about Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, that beautiful Russian Blue mix, and want to thank God for the two decades I’ve enjoyed with him. It made me marvel that, of all the world’s cats, I would have the privilege of his distinguished company, and that I might be the one to embrace him in his distress and carry him across town to those best-equipped to make him comfortable in his final hours.

As this film’s 45 minutes came to a close, I felt relieved. I felt peace. Anne and I made eye contact, and I knew that some kind of balance had been restored. We belonged. The Duke belonged. We were a part of the Before, the Now, and the What Shall Come. It is a cataclysmic reality — no pun intended. And it is beautiful.

Two hours later, the phone rang. The Duke will live. He is home with us again. His recovery from a stroke will require rigorous monitoring and assistance for weeks to come. We are up for it.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

. . . .

By the way, we discovered that MUBI’s offering of the concert film Tripping With Nils Frahm makes a perfect double-feature with Voyage of Time. Ideally, we could play the audio of the Frahm show while playing the visuals of the Malick film. It might be an improvement.


And speaking of great music…

Postcards to The Edge

I got distracted from my work for a while when I stumbled onto this lengthy, all-star salute to the guitar playing of U2’s The Edge published at Guitar World.


First impressions of Bergman Island

Here are the first impressions I posted at Letterboxd about Mia Hansen-Løve’s film Bergman Island, which Alissa Wilkinson has celebrated as her #1 favorite film of 2021.

She writes, “Bergman Island is like a diamond that you can turn over and over, seeing the light refract through each facet in new ways.”

I streamed Bergman Island by renting it from Vudu.com. And, as movie theaters are currently stuffed with both Oscar-begging flamboyance and blockbuster franchise entertainment, my decision to fight the peer-pressure call of the mutliplex, settle in on my couch at home, and watch this quiet, unhurried, observant, contemplative film felt almost thrillingly transgressive.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]


Few subjects are as important to me in art or in life as the challenges of marriage, the high calling of unconditional love, and the complex mysteries of where art comes from (and why). And here’s a film that takes place at the intersection of all of these things.

Bergman Island gives us Tom and Chris, a convincingly intimate couple, played by Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps, whose relationship feels “lived in,” but it also feels worryingly past its prime.

So, when Chris gets aggravated by how everything and everybody have free passes to interrupt her quiet and collaborative conversations with Tom, we can see where this might be going.

I can’t say I was surprised that the film took a hard turn into a representation of the screenplay Chris is writing, nor was I surprised that it’s a screenplay in which she gives shape to her frustrations and fantasies. What did surprise me was how much more compelling the movie-within-the-movie seemed.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]


Mia Wasikowska does some of the best work I’ve seen from her as the avatar for Chris in Chris’s own movie, and as the lines between reality and art begin to blur, the movie becomes more and more interesting. At times it flirts with the cleverness of Kiarostami’s masterful Certified Copy, but it ends up staying modestly focused on Chris’s doubts about her partner and questions about whether or not she is on a path to happiness.

[Image from the IFC Films trailer.]


The conclusion is almost too ambiguous and enigmatic for me, at least this first time through. But I admire how the film gives Chris a subtle character arc so that she seems, at the end, so much wiser, stronger, and likely to take more initiative in the progress of her life and art going forward.

If I were a greater admirer of Bergman and more interested in this film’s substantial investments in conversations about him and his work, I would probably love this. At this point, I can say I admire and enjoy it. And I’ll go on thinking about it, blissfully free of that feeling of being pummeled that I probably would have experienced if I’d gone to see anything at the multiplex today.


First impressions of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story

My film-critic voice:

This is Steven Spielberg making masterful artistry seem effortless, fusing dance, music, color, context, and light into a symphony of kinetic energy that is enchanting and often exhilarating — and as it honors and celebrates the movie that inspired it, it is altogether superior to that film. While bodies rush across the screen in choreography as mesmerizing as a murmuration of starlings at sunset, nobody makes a false move or strikes a false note…

The voice of a more personal response:

… with two exceptions, though… right? I mean, one offender is worse than the other.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]


The casting of Ansel Elgort as Tony seems to me to be the single most unfortunate casting choice of Spielberg’s career, even more frustrating than Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds. Elgort stands out in the film, for me, as nothing more than a placeholder, a “type” of actor cast more for his resemblance to a certain kind of Hollywood icon: He looks like Discount Marlon Brando, or, worse, Young Billy Zane. He’s as jarringly dissonant here as if you’d cast a young Tom Brady in the role: He looks like the Iconic Leading Man, but he doesn’t have a flicker of charisma or depth essential for this role, nor does his expressiveness or his line delivery suggest any of the developing intelligence, the educational scars, or the conflict of conscience that are essential to making this character work.

Complicate that with the unfortunate and appalling tabloid-ready idiocy that Elgort brings with him, polluting the experience with his abuse of celebrity privilege, and you’ve really made this movie difficult for me to enjoy. (I don’t blame Spielberg; he probably couldn’t have seen this coming, having cast Elgort before the scandals hit headlines. But still, I can’t watch Elgort and make myself forget how he has abused his fame in harmful and self-serving ways.)

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]


And while Rachel Anne Zegler, as Maria, is charming and gifted with a marvelous voice, as the film goes on and demands more and more of her, she just isn’t making Maria as interesting or as compelling as several of the supporting cast — Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Iris Menas — make their characters. Whenever she’s onscreen with one of them, my attention shifts to them. Elgort fails for lack of any compelling complexity; Zegler falls short for summoning up nothing but the emotions called for in the moment.

And we need complexity from both of them. Why? Because — and this is my biggest problem with West Side Story as a whole — we aren’t given any compelling suggestions about why these two are drawn together beyond a sort of fairy-tale, love-at-first-sight infatuation that has nothing to do with getting to know each other, finding something in each other that has been missing, learning from each other. We’re supposed to except that they’ve discovered True Love in the midst of trouble, but it is the shallowest and most sentimental of love’s definitions. It’s just as if an invisible and meddling Fairy Godmother swept in and waved her wand arbitrarily over two people at the dance and said, “You’re in love!” Thus — I hate to say this — I just don’t care. That kind of love-spark is fleeting and fickle, and if we put all our money on it, we’re likely to find that one of them changes their mind and feels the same way about someone else tomorrow.

By contrast, I care about Bernardo and Anita because there is a serious challenge in their relationship: She is trapped between her love for him and her awareness of his prejudice and dangerous rage. He is allowing his righteous anger against prejudice harden into hate, determining that violence is the only path forward. There’s risk, there’s challenge, and there’s potential for real enlightenment or real tragedy here. That’s a story that could have made for a meaningful center in this mess.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]


So, unfortunately, this feels to me like the same frustrating West Side Story that enchants me in every way except as a narrative.

I teach a creative writing class at Seattle Pacific. The syllabus I inherited from the previous professor contains a startling rule for the young writers. The gist of it is this: “No love stories allowed. Writing about love and romance is one of the greatest challenges a writer can face. And, no offense, but you’re not ready yet. It’s rare that a freshman or sophomore writer has learned enough about love yet to write about it with depth and wisdom instead of sentimentality and superficiality. Instead, focus on other kinds of stories, and practice bringing characters to life in their complexity and contradiction. This will be good practice for later, when you can write about love from a vantage point of experience, perspective, and wisdom.”

I don’t hold this line as resolutely as she apparently did. But there is a cost to my loosening of the restrictions: I end up reading a lot of “love stories” that are cheesy, flimsy tales of sudden infatuation, rushes of emotion, and little or nothing of substance or detail. In short, I’m not really reading about love. I read about young couples whose enthrallment is based on superficial things, and anyone who gets in their way is automatically a villain. I remember being that young. I remember “falling in love.” And I remember the kinds of love stories I wrote. And I look back on my naive, hormone-driven self with pity and amusement and affection. I was in love with love, but my sensibilities were not sharp enough yet to see through the fantasy to the reality. And I am so glad that I was saved from myself, and that I did not marry until I had grown into a stronger understanding of what love really is, what it really requires.

[Image from the 20th Century Studios trailer.]


West Side Story always strikes me as an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet written by one of those freshman fiction writers who has only read a synopsis of Shakespeare’s story, and who wants, above all, to stage occasions of beautiful young lovers kissing in the moonlight, to focus on the characters’ appearances and flirtations, and to indulge in the violence and melodrama that might threaten such a fantasy. It’s all just so… superficially romantic. Meanwhile, I just want to step in, swat away that meddling Fairy Godmother, and shift our attention to characters and relationship that feel more grounded in the messiness and complexity of real human nature and, well… true love.

When I first saw In the Heights, I remember thinking that these two films would inevitably be compared at the end of the year because of their similarities. As it turns out, thanks to the trials of 2021, In the Heights feels like a hundred years ago, and I don’t see those conversations happening. Perhaps that’s for the best. But for the record, I cared about the romances at the heart of that film so much more than I care about this one. And while Spielberg’s film is more masterful on cinematic terms, I’m far more likely to go back to the charismatic and complicated characters of In the Heights, who actually made me care not only about their crushes and their dreams, but also their families, communities, and neighborhoods.

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